White Eagle Hall Interviews: David Leto of Rye Coalition

By Timothy Herrick

“We were friends before we were even in a band” – David A. Leto, Drummer

When White Eagle Hall had its official opening and ribbon cutting last year, Rye Coalition was selected to headline the show. Given that the venue had been part of the lives of generations of Jersey City residents, this quintessential Jersey City ensemble was the most appropriate choice to issue in a new chapter of music, arts and entertainment for this historic concert hall and the community it serves. The members of Rye Coalition all grew up in Jersey City, attended high school together and while they always considered themselves a rock band who mixed classic rock with punk attitude, critics declared them one of the leading progenitors of the then new “emo” genre. Always on the verge of making it, they spent years touring the world, impressing music lovers, critics and fellow musicians – but just as they were signed to a major label – Dreamworks Records – and about to release Curses, produced by none other than Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, the bottom fell out – the label went out of business, they had to find a new label to release their record at the same time downloading destroyed record sale revenues. Record Stores became an endangered species. Rye Coalition had to make tough decisions as they transitioned into a new age. The rise and fall of Rye Coalition was well documented in the award –winning film Rye Coalition: The Story of the Hard Luck Five (2015) by Jenni Matz. The band may have slipped into semi-retired status, but as last year’s White Eagle Hall show proved, their live performances are just as thrilling and rocking as ever. Jersey City now may be a hotbed of music, but back when the Rye Coalition first coalesced, there was no place in town to play and few fellow musicians to hang out with. Rye Coalition brings a unique historical perspective on American music, the life of working musicians, and an informed view of the often pitfall-riddled evolution of the Jersey City music scene. White Eagle Hall interviews talked with David A. Leto (Drummer), who along with Ralph Cuseglio (singer), Justin A. Morey (bass), Jon Gonnelli (guitar ) and Herbert Wiley V (guitar) return to White Eagle Hall on Saturday, May 5th to celebrate its reopening. 

 Timothy: What was the last song you heard before we spoke?

David: Unchained by Van Halen. It was on my iphone, just popped up in the shuffle. 

Timothy: You worked with Dave Grohl, did you learn anything about drumming from him?

David: Personally, yeah I learned a lot of stuff. I always played bass guitar growing up, my brother (Gregg Leto) was the drummer. He was a natural drummer. I was not a natural drummer. I practiced a lot and took cues from things I liked, cues from what I wanted to do. Learning from Dave, it was just like how to be simple, and more how to serve the song, and that what you can to do is not always the best thing to do, and kind of charting out what I’m going to play, this verse play this, this chorus play this and stick to that usually. Don’t overthink it. What you want to hear is what you want to play, and a lot of drummers do over play. Just keep it simple. 

Timothy: I was fascinated with your 40 inch cymbal, as a drummer, what role does a cymbal play and what sort of sound do you get from a large cymbal that you do not get from others?

David: It’s amazing, it’s really heavy and it breaks a lot of sticks and it doesn’t stop ringing. I’ve never seen one like it since. I bought that in Jim Malone’s in 1995 for like 50 bucks, and I think it’s worth a lot more than that now. It’s an old, old Zildjian. 

Timothy: Why the large cymbal, what does it do for the music?

David: We were just young kids, making noise, being obnoxious and loud. Everyone else had normal cymbals. I found this one that was gigantic and I figured why not it, and it look ridiculous have. It was mostly that, that it looked ridiculous. 

Timothy: Your documentary is called the hard luck five. Has your luck changed since the movie came out? 

David: The thing is like, obviously taken with a grain of salt, that nickname. Five kids from Jersey City where there’s no music scene or anything, tour the world numerous times, played with bands they admire, played arenas, went to Europe, got signed to a major label, had people come see them. That was kind of lucky, it was all lucky, but there were always setbacks every step of the way, that’s where the bad luck thing came from. But you know, in our personal lives, I would say we’re all pretty lucky. 

Timothy: It sounded like the band came about at the same the music industry changed. 

David: That is when we got signed to a major. Before that, we had three albums a few EPS and singles. We were of the school of actually getting signed to a record label, selling your record and going on tour. When we got signed, it was Napster Decade, you know, a new era, and we didn’t know how to be a band in that era.

Timothy: Do you think the industry has adjusted, have you adjusted?

David: Totally. The bands who have made it, in our kind of genre, whatever, like Queens of the Stone Age, bands like that. They were popular before [the record industry changed] and they’ll continue. I think for a new band it’s probably really tough. But with Sound Cloud and Video Games and getting your music in TV shows and commercials, and doing anything like selling your record online and you get a t-shirt, everyone’s adjusted. But now a record sells 10,000 copies it’s on the Billboard Charts and that’s a flop, but back in the 90s and the early 2000’s that’s a disaster.

Timothy: I don’t know how much revenue at all that would generate. 

David: You just release a single and hope for dollar downloads or whatever. 

Timothy: You seemed to be one of the early emo bands – how does emo differ from punk or other alt-rock genres?

David: I mean it was just a thing, in the 90s, that term, but it’s not what people know as emo as today. It was definitely a different kind of thing, quiet, loud, angsty screaming, jumping around. That was emo back then. I don’t even know what emo is now. I couldn’t tell you if a band is an emo band. There was a 90s, thing, the bands like The Promise Ring, Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, us. There was like all these bands that were hipstery, emo bands, but we never thought of ourselves as that. 

Timothy:  Did you think of yourselves as a punk band?

David: We just thought we were a loud rock and roll band with obvious punk influences and many classic rock influences. It’s hard to say, we were just very us, very Jersey City. We did have a punk rock mentality, we were all about the two dollar shows, the free shows, the VFW Halls. 

 

Timothy: When you formed the band more than 20 years ago, was there any Jersey City music scene at all and if so what was it like?

David: None. No, there was maybe one or two like high school bands, but no one who tried to leave the city and play somewhere else. We always wanted to go around the country and play, you know. Never did we think it would go as far as it did, which maybe was a problem.

Timothy: What do a mean a problem?

David: I mean, it stunted everything else. We were like, oh maybe we can do this, then you have to go back to a normal life. We dropped out of school, went back to school, dropped out of school, went back to school again, graduated. But I wouldn’t trade any of it for what we did… the memories. 

Timothy: You’ve certainly seen the Jersey City scene change. Maybe the question is not how did you see it change, but when did you see it change?

David: I would say the early 2000s… 2003, 2004… The brownstones getting fixed up, bars came in. We had a bar Uncle Joes, that was like the cool bar, the only bar we had. There was always Maxwell’s, but that was very Hoboken. All the bands that we liked, we saw there. Maxwell’s was its own beast. That was where every band from the country came to that you wanted to see. But Jersey City had zero. So seeing White Eagle Hall pop up and all these cool restaurants and bars, Newark Avenue’s pedestrian walkway… Newark Avenue was bombed out when I was in high school. Every building was boarded up and there were grass lots. People say they don’t like the new Jersey City but it’s nice being able to walk around without fear of getting murdered. When I was in High School it was rough. 

 Timothy: Was there any place at all to see or play music?

David: No, there was house parities but no place to see a show, a rock band or punk band or any band. But we did have Kool & The Gang, so that’s pretty awesome. 

Timothy: Do you think those changes might make it easier? Would your luck have been less hard if you were coming up now?

David: Now in Jersey City?

Timothy: Yes.

David: I still think it would be the same situation, as any band, any new band would be. Luckily we started when you could gain a following by touring and putting out actual CDs. So, I don’t think it would make any difference. It’s the year, you know, it’s not 1996 anymore and it never will be, so that whole way of doing that is… bands still tour, bands are still playing clubs. I don’t know how it works anymore, but I would be very discouraged to try and start a band now. Maybe it’s just age, but now it seems everyone is in a band, and back then, not everybody was in a band. When we were touring and stuff as say 18 year olds, 19 year olds, there was barely any internet or whatever, you had to find a band through your friends who told you about them, or you read about them in a magazine, or just went to a record store and bought their record on a whim because you liked the cover. But now you can find about every band with one click, what year they were born, their parents’ names are, their kids, their dog, but it’s so hard to find good bands, you know what I mean? It’s hard to explain, if this was around then it would have been amazing, but without all the MP3s. If that wasn’t invented, I think the music industry would still be what it was.

Timothy: How familiar where you with White Eagle Hall before playing the official ribbon cutting last year?

David: When I was a kid, in neighborhood, I don’t know if you know Bob Hurley

Timothy: I do [Bob Hurley Bob Hurley, coach of the St. Anthony Friars, the basketball team of St. Anthony High School, who under Hurley won 23 state championships. From the late 1960s throughout the 1990s, the Friars practiced at White Eagle Hall and were famous as the championship inner-city team without their own gym]

David: We grew up around the corner from the Hurleys. Danny [Daniel Hurley, Bob’s son, St. Anthony Friar and current head men’s basketball coach at the University of Connecticut] and my brother were best friends. As kids we were always in White Eagle Hall, playing around and shooting while the kids from St. Anthony’s were practicing. We were always with them. We played basketball, me and my brother, our whole childhood lives. 

Timothy: Did you go to St. Anthony’s?

David: No, no. We went to St. Peter’s, my brother and I. That’s where I met Jon and Ralph. But I am familiar with how it (White Eagle Hall) was and how it is now, unbelievable. The first time I walked in, I was shocked. 

Timothy: As a band, what impressed you the most when you played White Eagle Hall last year?

I thought the whole place, everyone that was there, the staff, were very nice. The gear was all brand new. It sounded great. Heath [Heath Miller of Excess dB Entertainment) who booked the show was nice, the owner (Ben LoPiccolo) was super nice, super great. Backstage was clean and comfortable. Everything about it was perfect. 

Timothy: Did the performance change the band in any way

David: I think we played a show either shortly before or shortly after at Monty Hall too, that was fun. Then after that there was a thing called the Ghost of Uncle Joes, and we did a Guns & Roses cover band, for Halloween. We did at FMU. We started doing fun things together and we realized, the reason we’re together and were together for so long was because we were friends before we were even in a band. So everything we fought over was foolish ego kids stuff. We’re adults now. It’s fun to get together and drink beer, talk about old times, joke around and remember stuff we forgot. And just play, whatever. 

Timothy: Do you get reacquainted with the fans? Are you surprised you still have that following?

David: Yeah, it’s crazy. People come out, I heard people flew out for the show. People still care. It’s awesome. Through Facebook and Instagram, people find us all the time. I’ll have young kids, go my older brother told me about you guys, and they go is this really you? I’m like, yeah it’s really me. Who do think it is, Michael Jackson? What’s up dude?

Timothy: Anything about last year’s show you remember specifically?

David: It was super fun. They wanted like a Jersey City band, I don’t know who they would have gotten, besides Kool & the Gang. We were honored to be the first show of the opening of the club. It’s historical. We are now a part of Jersey City History. 

Timothy: What is your favorite thing to eat on Jersey City Show Days (rumor is you ask for 2nd Street Bakery rolls)? 

David: That’s John and Justin love those. I can’t really eat anything before a show, it just comes up. You can’t play drums stuffed. 

 Timothy: Who are some of your favorite drummers, who do you look up to?

David: That’s a loaded question. Everybody always says John Bonham, but there’s a reason why. Alex Van Halen. Who else, Grohl definitely. A lot of the old school guys, like Don Purdie. I don’t know who I would say personally, my brother, who I watched play growing up. I love anybody who has a groove and flair that is unique to them, you know. 

 Timothy: What records did your parents play, what were you listening to growing up?

David: My mom and dad were big classic rock guys. My mom had seen Zeppelin a million times, and Neil Young. The Doors. There was a lot of classic rock playing, which I guess to them was just rock. My dad’s a big jazz guy too. 

Timothy: What sort of jazz do you remember?

David: My dad liked Miles Davis, Coltrane, the regulars. I never got into them, but it was something different. I did get the classic rock. And, he was into the punk stuff of the late 70s. He would buy weird compilations so I would hear the Stranglers for the first time. He was into Squeeze and Joe Jackson, the Clash, that kind of stuff. My brother was older, when he started really listening to punk, that’s when it took hold and I loved it, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols. But I also loved Guns & Roses and Led Zeppelin. That’s what I always thought our band was, a mix of those two things, a mix of punk and classic rock.  

 Timothy: What was the first record you bought with your own money?

David: Maybe Thriller. 

Timothy: What is your first memory?

David: Oh my God, I have no idea. First memory… I think I stole a screw driver when I was in a stroller from Pathmark. My dad still has it. It has a big round top. I do remember that, it was the Pathmark on 440, which I think now is an Acme. I do remember stealing it because I got yelled at. I was probably five, maybe five, six. 

Timothy: What do you remember from growing up in the 80s in Jersey City that today’s Jersey City kids will never be able to experience?

David: Summer time in Jersey City was my favorite thing in the world. We were outside all day, playing touch football or stickball in the street, or basketball. My friend had a pool. You would ride bikes and if you were thirsty, you would see whatever house had a hose and you would drink from the Hose. I don’t think kids have that much outdoor time, good old fashioned fun with your friends when you’re not texting or playing video games. I think we’re the last generation of that. 

Timothy: I’m surprised that was still going in the 1980s in Jersey City because I think of that decade as lot of white flight.

David: I didn’t realize what was going in the rest of Jersey City when I was like nine years old. It was not until High School that I realized that Jersey City was so big. I didn’t go anywhere. I rode my bike to the corner then came home. It wasn’t not until high school that I was like Jersey City is very big and very diverse. There was other stuff that I didn’t know about because I was a kid.  

Timothy: Where did you used to hang out?

David: The basketball courts in Country Village were literally where we lived. We went there after school than all day in the summertime. They tore those down because people who lived on the block didn’t like people playing at night, or kids coming out from Curries Woods, so they petitioned to get rid of the basketball courts and they tore it down. It’s a baseball field and a big lot now. It was the epicenter of basketball, games going on 12, 13 hours straight. It was fun. My whole childhood was spent in that park. 

Timothy: Besides all the ups and downs, it’s obvious Rye Coalition is committed to the music. Does this commitment become easier with time or more difficult as you age? 

David: I think the commitment was stronger as we became a little more popular. If we could play in Washington D.C. or San Diego and there were a hundred people there, it was cool. Then the next time you came there’s like 125 or 175, you know what I mean? The word-of-mouth, and there were albums sold, which weren’t in the hundreds of thousands, but it was cool, it was a teen buzz go. We would sell like 3, 4,000. We were psyched. We got older and we got better as a band and it was like learning about how to write a song and how to actually play our instruments. We pretty committed up until we weren’t. Now, as a father of two, I am kind of more focused on my family. I love music, and listening to music. I am constantly buying records and stuff, usually something old or new, if I hear something great. Playing music is definitely on the backburner now but it was and always will be a big part of my life. We will always be involved in music somehow. 

Timothy: What was the last record you bought that you loved?

David: Eddie Kendricks, People Hold On.  I had  Mp3s of it, but when I have something for so long I try to find it and that album is amazing. I bought Kendrick Lamar’s last two albums. Who else did I buy? Yussef Kamal, Black People Focus. They’re a British jazz group but their drummer is ridiculous, which is what reeled me in

 

Timothy: Is emo tougher to play as you mature?

David: We definitely broke through our emo years, our first two years, whatever, that’s when we were branded that. I always considered us just a rock and roll band. As you get older, it is definitely harder to play like that for an hour; they’re definitely an energetic group, the guys in my band. The singer is very wild, he’s out there, he’s hanging the lighting rods, jumping on the PA speakers, he’s in the crowd. He’s running around, the guitar player is doing flips off the wall. But as you get older, you might hurt yourself. The next day, you might need some aspirin. It’s hard to play that hard for that long every day. 

Timothy: But does age bring something different to the hard rock genre?

David: Touring and all that, maybe being a glammy pretty looking rock band is a young man’s game. But we can bring it just as much as the young kids can.

Timothy: Each of your songs seem to credit several or all of your members as songwriter. Do you always write as a group?

David: That’s a more of the collaborative aspect of it. Either someone will come with two or three parts, or I will have two or three parts, and then some guy will hear them and switch them around. Then we will be the parts in. It’s like a recipe almost, and we’re kind of a cook. We were never like I am taking all the credit because I’m the one who wrote it, that’s just ridiculous. 

Timothy: Do you all write the lyrics?

David: Ralph writes all the lyrics, but the four of us write all the music. 

 Timothy: What animal would be your animal spirit guide? 

David: Funny, I was always obsessed with the unicorn as an animal. But we were always a horse driven band, we always loved horses. It was just like the whole cowboy thing, we were into westerns, country and southern things. It was something we were always into as a band, like finding belt buckles with big horses on them, especially our singer. But I always thought unicorns were just hilarious, but they’ve been over exposed. 

Timothy: You’ve toured around the world, what city was most accepting of your Jersey City music or had the best  music scene?

David: Chicago really liked us because we were a little reminiscent of bands from Chicago, we were loud and abrasive and they were very accepting of that. But there, D.C. L.A. San Francisco and Portland. I have to say they were number one. Philly was big too, Boston. But we’ve played Murfreesboro Tennessee to like three bikers. 

Timothy: Do you have a favorite writer or book?

David: I’d say Charles Bukowski, he’s definitely my favorite writer. I probably read most of his books. The one I just read, Women. He’s a great story teller. I can’t even believe he lived the way he did. It’s like it couldn’t be real. 

Timothy: How about a favorite movie?

David: It’s hard to pick, I always say the Holy Mountain by Jodorowsky. I have a big poster of it in my living room that I got for Father’s Day. There’s something about that movie that every time I watch it… if I only go from visual standpoint, not acting or storytelling, well then that movie is perfect to me. There’s just something about it. 

Timothy: Do you have any preshow rituals?

David: We just like to get together and joke around, do a shot of something, Whiskey, then run on stage and have fun. 

Timothy: River, Ocean, Lake – what body of water do you like looking at the most?

David: I’d say the Ocean, but Newark Bay is a close second. The Ocean is the beach, whether it’s the Jersey Shore or going to LA with my son and standing on the beach. It’s the beach, it’s always pleasant and mellow and there’s no stress when you’re at the beach. So, the Ocean, and it’s a great Led Zeppelin song. 

 Timothy: When you toured together in the van and came home to Jersey City, who got dropped off first?

David: That’s a good question. Usually Jon was dropped off first because he lived in Secaucus. Then whoever was in Jersey City was second, that would be I think Justin and Herb, and then I was next, and Ralph owned the van so he had to bring it home. I lived in Greenville, so I was second to last always.

Come celebrate White Eagle Hall’s one year anniversary, with Rye Coalition, Will Wood & The Tapeworms, The Rock-n-Roll Hi Fives, and Long Neck on Saturday, May 5th. This concert is a free event, but an RSVP is required – Visit: www.WhiteEagleHallJC.com

Find out more about Rye Coalition and Rye Coalition: The Story of the Hard Luck Five, visit http://ryecoalitionthemovie.com/