Not-So-Political Punk: An Interview With Jen Tonon

by M. L. Lanzillotta

With her short pink hair, numerous tattoos, and tomboyish voice Jen Tonon certainly looks like a rockstar. I met her at my roommate’s last birthday party. At the time I couldn’t help but be awed by her punkish look and musical expertise. I haven’t yet seen her play, mind you, but I’ve heard she’s amazing at what she does. Two decades of practice will do that to a person, I suppose. However, she’s more than a skillful musician. Jen is also quite kind: every year she participates in a gaming competition to help sick kids. Plus, she’s well-known enough to be endorsed by Blakhart guitars and Dead Legends apparel. Getting to interview her was a real honor.

Alchemical Records: So… why did you decide to get into music?
Jen: Um, well it’s always been a thing I’ve been interested in. My dad’s a musician, so that’s a big part of it. I started playing drums when I was eleven in the school orchestra at the time. I was terrible but, y’know, it was just practice. My dad got me my first drum set and my mom got me my first guitar… and so, it just kind of spun off from there. And now it’s been 20 years and I still love it.

AR: How many bands have you been in over the years?
Jen: Oh God . Um, dozens…. Right now I’m in four. Yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment and having no free time.

AR: What’s the best group you’ve played with?
Jen: Oh man, that’s a tough question. I feel like – and it’s not just that I’m trying to be diplomatic or anything like that – I’ve had a lot of fun in all of my bands and I’ve been in a lot of different genres, which is part of my thing. And why I’ve been in so many and am in so many is that I like so many different types of music that it’s hard for me to just pick one. And so, um, I had a lot of fun with a band called Like No Tomorrow. They’re a punk band out of Northern Virginia. They’re still playing, they’re still awesome. Um… and of course my current bands Creep Crusades, Rocket City Riot, Los Bombs, and Special Moves 2… which is a video game-themed band.

AR: Which Instruments do you play?
Jen: In Los Bombs – which is a cover band – I play drums. Creep Crusades and Special Moves 2 I play bass, and in Rocket City Riot I play guitar.

AR: Do you usually write songs or do other band members do it or…?
Jen: It’s both. Some bands tend to write as a group. Some have one principal songwriter and then we all kinda contribute our ideas to flesh it out. But on top of that I do stuff on my own. I write and record my own kinda solo stuff, since I play multiple instruments. Most of that… it tends to be instrumental because I’m not a huge fan of writing lyrics and vocal melodies and singing and stuff. I will, on occasion, but it’s not my preference. I really like doing soundscapes and stuff like movie soundtrack type things and, then, rock n’ roll stuff.

AR: How do you write your solo songs? Do you start with one particular instrument?
Jen: For my solo stuff, yeah. It’s, um, I have a really weird process because I know I’m never going to play it live. It’s almost like a therapy thing, y’know I can sit down and blow of steam by just writing some stuff. And I tend to start with one instrument – be it guitar, or keyboards, or even just a drum track – and I’ll do an entire song. From beginning to end. Maybe, y’know, two to four minutes. Nothing super crazy. And then I’ll start adding the other tracks… and adding and building and building and… after about, y’know, about three to four hours I have a complete songs and it’s done. It’s almost like… I tell people it’s like one of those monk sand-paintings where they create these kind of really cool works of art and then when they’re done they just blow it away and it’s destroyed and the sand is gone. It’s sort of like a one-and-done for me. I’ll sit down, do everything at once and, then, that’s it… there it goes. Sometimes I release it to an album, sometimes I don’t. But it’s really more about the process of writing and recording and doing, more than the need for it to actually be heard by anybody.

AR: Do you refer recording or playing live?
Jen: Playing life. Most definitely. I’ve got a theatre background, like a lot of musicians and performers and artists types. One of the biggest things for me is the rush of playing . And, um, I just played a show last night – my first one with Creep Crusades – and I missed it. I hadn’t played out since December of last year. And… I feel like I get the most depressed or down on myself when I’m not onstage or in front of a crowd or having fun or acting like an idiot.

AR: A lot of musicians have very strong political opinions. Do you?
Jen: Of course I pay attention to it and I’m aware of things that go on, and, y’know, I have my own opinions that I try to form from all sources – which, that seems to be kind of the thing a lot of people don’t do right now. Um, I’m not very outspoken or public about politics because… it just feels like it’s, like, a hamster wheel. Nobody wants to solve any problems they just want to argue. Especially on social media. It gets very mean and vitriol very fast. If the bands I’m in want to write about it, that’s fine… I mean, that’s their… choosing to do so. I like to do stuff that makes me happy. Politics, religion, and government… all that stuff. It just sorta leads to arguing all the time. I don’t want to spend the energy on it.

AR: Are there any causes you support? Anything you’d like people to get involved in?
Jen: For sure. I do, every year, around the beginning of November late October – it depends on the year – I do a thing called Extra Life. And it’s a 24-hour gaming marathon for charity. It all goes towards Miracle Network Children’s Hospitals. I tend to play for the John Hopkins Children’s Center. It’s kind of, you know, the gaming stuff is a vehicle to raise the money but, unltamiely, y’know, we have fun doing it. We’ll play games for 24 hours straight. We had a big team last year, we made… uh, we were in the top 100 for over 10,000 teams. We raised almost 10 grand for our team and I’m so proud of everybody because we’ve been a pretty cohesive unit for the last 5-or-6 years. And it’s finally got to that point where we’re starting to raise some serious money for sick kids.

AR: That’s really important.
Jen: Yeah.

AR: …And that’s all for now.

The 9:30 Club Saves the Opening Act with Jonny Grave

Washington DC welcomed JJ Grey and the Mofro Band to the 9:30 Club on Thursday, March 7 for a night of blues driven, southern rock. JJ Grey and the Mofro Band are currently on their US tour with opener Southern Avenue, out of Tennessee. Unfortunately, the morning of the DC show, Southern Avenue became stranded on the road after their tour van’s transmission blew.

Every dark cloud has a silver lining however. This unfortunate incident created an opportunity for artists in the DMV to join the bill and open for JJ Grey and the Mofro Band at the 9:30 Club.

Jonny Grave, a singer, blues guitarist and songwriter of Washington DC, got the job the afternoon of the gig. Jonny was joined on stage by Ben Tufts, drummer of DC-based indie band Fuzzqueen and bassist, Ben Rikhoff.

Alchemical Records caught up with Jonny Grave after the show. Jonny told us that he got a call from Danny Schwartz around 1:30 to cancel his evening plans and get in touch immediately with All Good Presents. The gig was Jonny’s if he could put a band together in an hour. A few calls later and mission accomplished. Jonny told us, “The staff at 9:30 is a bunch of rare and fearless individuals who can take a dire situation like [this], and turn it into an amazing show. They’re top notch, and a joy to work with. I had a fantastic time, and can’t wait to come back.”

The crowd was undoubtedly impressed with the impromptu trio, who gave a steady rise to the energy level in the room to welcome the headliner.

JJ Grey and the Mofro did not disappoint. The Florida based band kept the crowd on their feet, the guitar picks flying and the organ and trumpets whaling. Alchemical Records would be remiss to not give a loud fist bump to Mofro trumpeter Dennis Marion of Baltimore, Md.

Kimberly Shires is a native of the DC Metropolitan area. Kimberly is a freelance writer, music degree holder, road bike warrior, songwriter, corporate ladder climber, and a Subaru driving nature enthusiast.

Interview with Alt-Rock Trio Copes

by M. L. Lanzillotta

I first encountered alt-rock trio Copes (Sebastian Pinto, Alec Pugliese, Vinnie Burke) at the Black Cat in 2017, when they were playing a benefit show for a homeless shelter. Afterward, I went home and listened to their album for days. I’ve been a fan ever since. It’s hard not to be. There’s something so simple – so familiar – about their music. Copes sounds like a rawer version of pop-punk bands many Gen Z’ers grew up with. The pleasantly vague lyrics can mean whatever the listener wants them to. This gives them a comforting universal feel. The tempo isn’t wildly fast or painfully slow, either. Same goes for the intensity. Their music inhabits a ‘Goldilocks Zone’. Also, there’s an aura of friendliness to Copes. Even the musicians themselves look like ordinary dudes. You know, the type of nonchalant guys you might meet at a record store, which only adds to their appeal.

Alchemical Records: So… how did you guys meet?
Seb: Uh, you can go with that one (gestures to Alec)
Alec: well, we had been playing bands for, what, five-six years?
Seb: Longer than that.
Alec: Five or six years with all three of us. Uh, and then, before that it was me and a couple of other people – my friends Jimmy and Brandon – and we were looking for another guitarist, and they knew Sebastian. And Sebastian came over one day, and then he was in the band, and that was like…
Vinnie: that must’ve been 2006. Like, ten years ago. At least ten years ago.
Alec: You didn’t know Vinnie from, like school or anything?
Seb: No.
Alec: We did go to the same schools.
Vinnie: But we met at band practice.
Alec: I was a friend of a friend…
Seb: Who came to a show.
Alec: Who came to shows – wait, no, hold on…. Jesse lived in Laurel, so you guys were friends with Jesse – right? – and then I was friends with Jesse, so that’s how I met you guys, I came to a show.
Seb: Though you weren’t living in Laurel then, you met him in high school.
Alec: Yeah.
AR: So… how long have you been playing together as this group?
Alec: Uh, this group? Three years. Right?
Seb: Yeah. Three years.
Alec: Around three years now. Yeah.
AR: I know I saw you in 2017 at the Black Cat.
Alec: Yeah, we did play the Black Cat.
Alec & Seb: in 2017.
Seb: That’s sounds right.
AR: That concert inspired my second book, by the way. Er, so, how do you guys go about writing songs?
Vinnie: Usually, one of us brings in a lick. A short riff. Like, really short. And then, ah, we’ll play it for a little bit and expand on that, and kinda go from there. Sometimes Sebastian will come in with, uh, some, like, some words and a melody and some chords. So that’ll be more like a song kinda put together. And then we’ll just add stuff, take stuff out, and polish that up.
Alec: I mean, some songs are like written pretty quick. Or, like, somebody comes in with – Sebastian or Vinnie comes in with something, and they’re like I want this to be like this. Sometimes it’s just a riff and it takes a whole year of us playing the same riff over and over again, and building a song from that. So, a bunch of different ways, really. But that’s the gist.
AR: Do the lyrics mean anything? Or are they merely words?
Seb: I guess what I try to do is write things that kinda sound fun to say and that people can interpret different ways. I’m trying to be a little bit more straightforward nowadays but, for the last album, I was just thinking just right think “he means this!” but when somebody else reads it they think “no, they meant this!”. So, your personality interprets what the lyrics mean. So everybody interprets them differently. And what you say about them reveals something about yourself.
Vinnie: I do remember at the time when we did [the] recording and finalizing on vocals, we actually did go over all the lyrics and discuss like what they meant to all of us. But I’ll be honest, that was – what? – two-three years ago. So don’t remember. But we definitely did discuss it.
Alec: I just wanna say, like, we’ve got that whiteboard in the band room. And he’ll come in with lyrics and he’ll write them on the board. And we’ll look at them and we’ll be like, first off, we’re like “oh, I like that, I like that, I don’t like this.” But then we’re like, “what does it mean to you?” And one song could mean something to Sebastian but then mean something totally different to me and Vinnie. And I think that’s what’s cool about, mainly, lyrics in general. But, I mean, I know that when you write stuff it comes from inside. Y’know what I mean? It comes from somewhere. Even if you’re not trying to writes something with any over-exaggerated meaning, it could mean to me. It can mean something to me. I know that’s kinda complicated, though I think it’s the best answer we can give.
AR: Who got you guys into music?
Alec: Do you want to go one-by-one on that?
AR: Probably.
Alec: How ‘bout you, Sebastian.
Seb: Uh, my older brother played guitar. And I always thought he was kinda cool and then, y’know, heard rock bands and I was like “I gotta try that out”. I was, like, 12.
Alec: I mean, for me… I was always interested in music, from classic rock and stuff like that. Really, it was these guys and a couple other people that got me into, like, punk rock and ska music back in the day, in High school. We all kinda bonded over that and we still do. I’d really say that bands like Bomb Music Industry, Streetlight Manifesto, No Effects, Blink-182… like, literally, I’m listing off things probably everybody would list off. But for me that was a definitely a huge influence there. How about you?
Vinnie: Uh, I mean… I’ve always played music. My sister and my mom took piano lessons, so, ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to play piano. So, I started with piano lessons then I… like, started playing other instruments like guitar. Then I finally got a drum set and started playing with other people. Then I went to college for it and everything. And then… for, like, band influences? I’d say I’ve stuck towards really the punk, pop-punk, and pop-rock kinda stuff. Blink-182, Green Day, that kinda area.
Alec: But I would definitely say, like, now… personally, I mean, my music interests definitely changed. Like, Indie Stuff. Carseat Headrest and, I don’t know, a lot of stuff that’s out there. People who are currently releasing music.
AR: What was recording that first album, Never Better, like?
Alec: That’s a loaded question.
Alec: Because, together the three of us, we’ve been through a lot of recording, like-
Vinnie: For other bands.
Alec: Our last band, Sweat Life, we – I mean, I did the least amount of stuff, probably-
Seb: I think she’s asking about this band.
Alec: Yeah, yeah. I’m saying, I mean, the albums we worked on in the past definitely made it a lot better.
Vinnie: The big thing on how this album was recorded was that I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I through-hiked the Appalachian trail while the recording was happening. So, before I left, I knew that we were going to work on this album and I’d be gone. So, before I left, we recorded all the drums for all of the songs. And then I left, and they went to a different – we call it, studio B-
Alec: My Mom’s house.
Seb, Alec, Vinnie:
Vinnie: Alec’s house. And they recorded all the guitar and the bass… and the vocals. And they sent me stuff. I remember walking to the top of a mountain so I could get service on my phone, so that I could download the Dropbox app – because I didn’t even have the app on my phone yet! – so I could download the app and download the songs, so I could listen to the songs and give them notes. Then, after I got back, we finished up with my backup vocals, harmonies, and… and we went back to mix and master with Mike Walls, right?
Alec: Yeah, Mike Walls.
Seb: From Infinite Pizza…
Seb and Alec: …and Queen Wolf.
Alec: Great bands. I was just gonna say that, like, definitely it was considered our first quote-unquote “album”, but I was just saying that, since we had so much experience working at home and doing this DIY recording, from all the other bands that we’ve done stuff with. Like, this was kind of… I think this album sounded pretty good. Like, from years and years of experience… of screwing up and not knowing what we’re doing with this home studio stuff. With this last album I was kinda like, “oh! We actually know what we’re doing… it sounds pretty good.”
Vinnie: They next one’s gonna be even better.
AR: You were the ones who made the music video on the Gameboy, right?
Alec: Yeah, yeah We were the ones who made a music video on a Gameboy camera.
AR: Why?
Alec, Seb, Vinnie:
Alec: Mainly because I wanted to. When I was in college I did a lot of, like, art projects and installations and like experimental video work with outdated technology. And I’ve always loved video games. When I was in college I was experimenting with actually making videos with a Gameboy Camera and I was just like, “aw, shit, this would be really cool for a music video”… and we wanted to make a music video… so I was like, “well, shit, we’re just gonna do it!”
Vinnie: We just started talking about it and then, uh, after we did a little bit of research – I think Alec did a lot more research – after we did a bit of research Alec was like, “nobody has done this before, nobody has used a Gameboy to shoot an entire music video.” So, for me, I was more interested in being the first people to do that. Like, that was a driving factor.
Alec: Personally it didn’t have anything to do with the song necessarily. I know a lot of people do music videos that have to do with the song… this was just one where it was us playing, we wanted to make it kinda trippy, y’know. If you wanna relate it to the song, like… [the song’s name is] Vertigo! There are parts of the song where it’s, like, pretty trippy. And that’s all done in the Gameboy camera. But, yeah, mainly ‘cause I wanted to do it. And recently a German newspaper came out with an article that included our video because it was talking about other music videos filmed on game consoles. So that was pretty cool.
AR: …and that’s all. Thank you, guys.