When the Everymen went into the studio to make These Mad Dogs Need Heroes, their latest record, the New Jersey-formed outfit knew they wanted the music to come from a different place — literally and figuratively.
They traveled to the legendary groove hub of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and worked with Alabama Shakes touring keyboardist and friend-of-the-band Ben Tanner. Suddenly, this six-strong outfit from the urban Northeast was immersed in the small-town South, recording in tiny Alabama towns where they could go a week and only encounter people who were working on the record.
"People can talk about the ghosts in the river, and I don't know if I believe in that stuff, but I believe in the people who are there making the record with you," says Mike Venutolo-Mantovani aka Mike V, the Everymen's songwriter and one of its lead vocalists. "If we wanted to make another rock record, we would have stayed in New Jersey."
The Jersey shore is a steady thread throughout the band's narrative: Mike V grew up in the small Jersey town of Tuckerton, eventually moving to Jersey City and then across the border to New York City. Yet returning to Jersey always felt like home. Nowadays, though, he's found a new and surprising home.
When Mike V called, we spoke briefly about the weather — small talk, yeah — and he mentioned that the sun hadn't yet come out that day over Chapel Hill.
"You're in Chapel Hill right now?" I asked.
"I live in Chapel Hill," he said, noting he'd moved to North Carolina just over a year ago. For the first time, he says, he's found a place that makes him feel like his native state. To this New Jersey bandleader, North Carolina feels like home.
"I can't laud it enough," he says. "There's some little stuff — the pizza here sucks and the coffee here is way too good." Still, Mike V married a Charlotte native, and when she took work in North Carolina he tagged along. He notes that since he's a broke musician, he may as well live someplace affordable. After living in New York City for a decade, he likes to sleep with the windows open and hear birds instead of sirens. The couple is looking to buy a house somewhere in the rural expanse between Chapel Hill and Saxapahaw, a small town to the west along N.C. 87.
"It's funny," he says in observation of how the area reminds him of his hometown. "My high school graduating class was barely 150. My wife makes a funny joke — my wife calls Tuckerton [New Jersey] the South up north," Mike V says with a laugh. People loved NASCAR, big trucks and fishing, and the high school yearbook featured superlatives like "most flannel." He laughs, but recognizes the complexity of his new home. What some people from the Northeast don't realize, he says, is how many people in North Carolina oppose legislation like HB2. It's a purple state, he says, and he's thrilled to see street protests like the Air Horn Orchestra in Raleigh.
"I love the people here. I've toured around the country, shit, 30 times in my life," Mike V says. "These are the nicest people in the United States — other than the piece of shit governor."
Yet Chapel Hill seems cosmopolitan compared to Muscle Shoals towns like Sheffield, where These Mad Dogs was recorded, Mike V says. Even deeper in the South, and in even smaller towns, he found a nexus of world-class musicianship wildly different from what he knew up north. In New York, if you know a few barre chords and want to form a band, you go right ahead, talent be damned. But in small-town Alabama, if you can't play, you don't play in a band. Period.
"Everyone wants to talk about Aretha Franklin and Duane Allman. All that history is all well and good, but the reality is that there are eight or 10 or 12 white-fucking-hot bands down there," Mike V says. "When you consider that versus the population of the area, it's unreal."
It forced the Everymen to step up their game, he says, and he appreciates that it did. They wanted to go beyond Free Jazz anyway and fill out the songs as a collaborative unit, which the Muscle Shoals experience enabled. Songs like "Chum Pt. 1" and "Chum Pt. 2," which collectively form a seven-minute soul-rock anthem of abuse and survival, find co-vocalist Catherine Herrick belting "I'm always the one that gets thrown back into the sea" over churning guitars, keys and saxaphones. It's visceral and Southern, but also modern and radio-friendly — a mélange of the urban Northeast and the rural deep South.
"We were trying to shed the maybe historically inaccurate perception that we were a punk rock band and go into a territory that's more grooving," Mike V says. They did so by traveling to small towns far from home, the bandleader says from the central North Carolina town he now calls home.