Writer/Musician Debuts New EP
By Sally Deering
There’s an old saying, “write what you know” and for music writer Jim Testa of Weehawken, the words fit like an old pair of jeans. Testa writes the music column CONSTANT LISTENER for The Jersey Journal and has covered the rock and roll music scene since the 1980s, when Maxwell’s was the go-to club to see new bands and local indie labels produced their records. Testa wrote about bands when they were still unknowns, offering insightful commentary about their work in his weekly column. Like Chicago-based music writer Jim DeRogotis (who is from Jersey City and worked as a reporter for several local papers) Testa continues to be an important voice covering today’s music scene.
Testa’s career in music sways from writing to performing. A guitarist, Testa’s played in bands since his teen years. These days, he performs locally and recently recorded a new EP at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen in Bushwick, five songs he wrote – political songs like those of Phil Ochs, witty tunes evoking Tom Lehrer, and love songs, too. The EP, AMERICAN SPIRITS AND ARTISANAL CHEESE, can be purchased online at Jimtesta.bandcamp.com.
A few hours before his recent performance at McGinley Square Pub in Jersey City, Testa took a few minutes to talk with River View Observer about growing up here in Hudson, his take on today’s music scene and new EP.
RVO: Where were you born and raised? Schools attended?
JT: I was born and raised in Weehawken and attended Rutgers. I earned a BA in Mass Communication. That’s what they called journalism back then.
RVO: How did your column Jersey Beat come about?
JT: Back in 1980, I was hanging out in Maxwell’s and I started writing for my friends’ music publications, Fanzines. I published Jersey Beat out of my house and gave it away for free. I was in a band, The Love Pushers; Jim DeRogotis was our drummer. I got to be known as the guy who knows Jersey music.
RVO: Did Jersey Beat lead to your Jersey Journal column Constant Listener?
JT: Yes. The first Constant Listener which started back in the 90s was everything I wanted to write about. I covered U2 and Springsteen concerts. I took a couple years off and (the Jersey Journal) got back in touch. They were looking for an online column; the column I’m doing now. It’s strictly local – Hoboken, Jersey City — which is a blessing.
RVO: How would you describe the local music scene?
JT: When it comes to Jersey City everyone has to take off their hats and salute Tony Susco of Rock-It Docket. He books the shows at Harsimus Cemetery. He’s involved with the local clubs. He’s so important. There’s more energy here in Jersey City than there has been for a long time. For a while there were two bars you could play in. Now it’s just so much better, so much more encouraging for the bands. You walk around downtown Jersey City, it feels like you’re walking around Williamsburg (Brooklyn) ten years ago. The music scene in Hoboken; it’s a very different demographic. It’s hard to live in Hoboken. There isn’t much affordable housing, not like back in the 80s when the entire city was dirt cheap and you could get an apartment for 90 bucks a month. The Bongos and Yo La Tengo lived in Hoboken. There’s definitely still a music scene, and people who live there, and who date back to the old music scene. Hoboken’s a very different demographic these days, On Washington Street, all you see are baby strollers. It once was bars with sawdust and spittoons. Hoboken in the 80s was a lot more like Hoboken of the 30s, then it is with 2016.
RVO: When did you start playing music?
JT: When I was a kid I played sax from 5th grade all the way through high school. I played in the school orchestra and marching band. I taught myself guitar in college and played a little guitar in Love Pushers. I took a long time off and focused on writing until about 2000. Then I got the itch and started playing as a singer-songwriter. I did an October concert after/ 9/11; a few people saw me there. Since then I put out two records in 2003 and 2004, I released a few garage band demos. I don’t pursue it full-time, but I’ve been fooling around and playing gigs.
RVO: How would you describe your musical style?
JT: I’m a big fan of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan. Phil Ochs’ motto was ‘all that moves is fit to sing’. He wrote a lot of contemporary protest songs about civil rights and politics. Another singer-songwriter I like is Tom Lehrer. Like Lehrer, I try to entertain you while I make my political point.
RVO: Can you tell our readers about your new EP, American Spirits and Artisanal Cheese?
JT: I recorded it at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen in Brooklyn, a studio run by Oliver Ignatius, who’s in his mid-20s. He built the studio from scratch, I became friends with him and he made a huge difference on the EP. He produced the whole thing, a lot of the reasons it sounds as great as it does is because of Oliver. The first song on the record is No Punk Rock in Bushwick, a reflection of a lot of music I saw. Then there’s Here’s to the State of New Jersey, a political song about Chris Christie. It was inspired by Bridgegate, before Christie announced he was running for President.
I’d Like to Be a Christian is another political song I wrote about right-wing Christianity, and the hypocrisy that breeds hate and intolerance. Two sentimental pieces: St. Mark’s Place, about the changing face of New York City, and how St. Mark’s Place has changed so much; and, a song, Sinatra on the Stereo, which is me remembering when I was growing up, and my father playing his records on Sunday after church and before our big Sunday dinner. It was the first music I was really exposed to music; then I started buying records on my own. One more song, Mr. Trump You’re Fired, is a punk rock song with electric guitar, and with the band The Dreggs. It’s got this sort of Chuck Berry riff, me telling Trump the things I think are wrong with him.
RVO: What’s in the future? A book?
JT: I would love to collate all the interviews I did. I interviewed so many great bands, and there’s a lot of great artwork.
RVO: How can someone get your music; see you perform?
JT: You can buy my EP at jimtesta.bandcamp.com. The record is $5. I’ll be performing on April 23 at Mama Coco in Brooklyn where I recorded the EP. I’m like everybody else, just trying to hold the middle together while the ends fall apart.
Jim Testa Perform
Sat, April 23
Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen
23 Meadow Street,
To purchase EP
Native Americans and Artisanal Cheese