Dream Job: 10,000 Maniacs are still crazy about the band

John Lombardo, guitar; Dennis Drew, keyboard; Mary Ramsey, lead vocals and viola; Jerome Augustyniak, drums; Steve Gustafson, bass guitar; and Jeff Erickson, guitar, are 10,000 Maniacs. (Jeff Fasano/Submitted)

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Keyboardist Dennis Drew describes shows by 10,000 Maniacs as joyous, a little scary and a bit intense.

But it all makes for a fun night.

“Whether it’s ‘What’s the Matter Here?’ ‘Once a City,’ ‘Love Among the Ruins’ or ‘These are Days,’ the music is generally joyous,” he says. “They’re toe-tappers.”

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of 10,000 Maniacs, which plays the Musical Instrument Museum on Friday, June 24.

Founded in 1981 in Jamestown, New York, 10,000 Maniacs weathered personnel changes, but four of the six original members remain — Drew, Steven Gustafson, John Lombardo and Jerry Augustyniack. 

Original lead singer Natalie Merchant left in 1993 to pursue a solo career and was replaced by backup singer Mary Ramsey, who also plays violin and viola.

“When we started, we were all in our early 20s,” says Gustafson, the bassist and tour manager.

“We were excited as all get out to tour. We thought it was the coolest thing ever because most of us — all the boys in the band — had wanted to be in a band since we saw the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan.’ I was 6 and I thought, ‘I want to do that. That looks like fun.’”

For Gustafson, playing Buffalo for the first time was a “really cool thing,” as it’s about 90 minutes from Jamestown. From there, they bought a Dodge Tradesman converted school bus, packed their stuff and slept on people’s floors on tour.

“We had to play Athens, Georgia,” Gustafson says. “The B-52s, R.E.M., they were from there. I think we were able to maintain our career because we didn’t get too big too fast. It’s a good thing. I think some bands who have that quick rise to millions and millions of records have a hard time following that up.”

When Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs, he says, Ramsey fit in quite nicely. A background singer who appeared on the band’s “MTV Unplugged,” she knew the songs and the players involved.

After its final major label record with Geffen, “Love Among the Ruins,” 10,000 Maniacs did an extended tour. Napster arrived and record companies started failing, Gustafson says.

“That was the beginning of the collapse,” he adds.

The show at the MIM will focus on all four decades.

“We play songs from every era that we have — songs that are 40 years old, songs that were on our last record that we put out in 2013,” Drew says.

“I don’t know if we’ll play any of the stuff we’ve been working on. We put new music on hold because we’ve been busy doing shows.

“‘Once a City’ seems extremely apropos, especially with what’s going on in Ukraine. I think we’re pulling that one out. We’ll do all the hits that people know. People know just about every song. It’s funny. We do shows and people say they forgot how many songs of ours they know.”

Still, the music is seamless.

“We’re still the same people writing songs,” Gustafson says. “We still have that bouncy tempo. We still tell stories — interesting stories — about people.

“Jeff Erickson, who’s been with us for 20 years now, after Rob (Buck) passed away in 2000, was a guitar tech and guitar player in his own right. He stepped in after we took a hiatus for about three years.

“He’s only 50. He’s younger than us. He brings a different twist on his stuff. His chord structures are funkier, a little bit more than our folky stuff. He’s not really a ‘folky’ guy. His stuff is real guitar oriented. My stuff is chord oriented. It’s a little bit different than what we’ve done in the past.”

Drew says it’s hard to fathom that 10,000 Maniacs is more than 40 years old.

“You don’t grow up thinking you’re going to do anything for 40 years,” Drew says. “To get to this point, it’s amazing.

“It doesn’t feel like 40 years. It’s been as natural as everything else. We have families, kids and grandkids on the way. It’s just been our life. You don’t retire from this, I don’t think. They’ll have to take us off the stage on stretchers.”

Musically, Drew says, 10,000 Maniacs is playing “better than ever.” He plays more piano than the early days, which he says is fun.

“It’s wonderful to bounce back and forth between organ, piano and synth, whether it’s ‘Trouble Me,’ ‘Because the Night,’ or sometimes we’ll do some of our quiet ones, ‘Across the Fields.’”

Touring has settled down for 10,000 Maniacs. The band, instead, focuses on long weekends.

“We’re all friends,” Gustafson says. “We all love each other; same with our crew. We’re 12 people who really enjoy each other’s company.

“We can put all that in the background of our lives and make family important. Some of us had other jobs in the 2000s. I was the technical director of the theater at Jamestown Community College. I produced musicals and did lights and sound.”

Drew spent 17 years as general manager of WRFA-LP, a low-power nonprofit radio station in Jamestown.

At the community college, Gustafson caught a music business course, during which he provided practical advice.

“I would tell my students, ‘If you can find a job where, at the end of the day, everybody stood up and applauded, take it,” he says with a laugh.

“That’s a good gig. Do that. It’s rewarding. It’s so amazing, so joyous. People who think it’s a glamorous life are wrong. There’s a lot of waiting around. It’s a boring life, except for the hour and a half onstage. Now we get to do two shows in Phoenix at a museum.”

10,000 Maniacs featuring Mary Ramsey

WHEN: 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, June 24

WHERE: Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix

COST: Tickets start at $44.50

INFO: 480-478-6000, mim.org