The debut record of Mighty Joe Castro and The Gravamen, Come On Angels!, is an electric mix of sultry grooves and guitar licks that appeal to fans of rockabilly and soft rock. Despite drawing from past artists like Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly, the album sounds fresh due to a stable of great songs with a little danger that belies the age of their roots.
The thrill in their music is especially present midway through the album. “June (90 Degrees)” is the throwback song of the summer. The piece’s sweltering sound is defined by a descending lead guitar that meshes with Mighty Joe Castro’s entrancing vocals. Their ability to fill (and leave) space in each song can be found throughout Come On Angels! (most especially in the soph hop staple “For Every Setting Sun”). The track begins as a swaying dance number as The Gravamen expertly slide in their soothing guitar riffs and bass.
In advance of Come On Angels!, lead singer Joe Castro discussed how he became hooked by older sounds, his respect of Philadelphia’s music legacy, and how the band recorded their debut.
Interview With Mighty Joe Castro
LAD: There has been a steady wave of throwback sounds like Allah-las and Nick Waterhouse over the past decade. How did you find the style of retro that you wanted to explore?
Joe Castro: I just grew up around it. I was born in NY and my parents were first generation rock-n-roll fans. My mom was a teenager when Elvis appeared so she had all his early records as well as Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, vintage Doo-Wop. When my father was a teenager, he saw a bunch of the Alan Freed rock-n-roll shows at the Brooklyn Paramount, and I’d hear stories about Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Ritchie Valens, Eddie Cochran – all the greats.
They were gods on earth to me as a kid, larger than life. As I started growing up, I saw films like La Bamba, American Hot Wax, Great Balls of Fire, The Outsiders – all were impactful. I gravitated toward that sound – I spent my summers outdoors listening to vintage oldies on a transistor radio. It’s in my blood.
You are creating music in a city that was one of the cornerstones of early rock ‘n roll. Do you feel a connection with Philly’s past when you are creating something that evokes music similar to what you would have heard on Bandstand?
I wasn’t born in Philly, so maybe not a direct connection, but a deep respect and I am definitely in awe of it’s legacy. Pioneers like Bill Haley and the Comets. Charlie Gracie. Dee Dee Sharp (the Mashed Potato!). The Dovells and the Bristol Stomp. Frankie Avalon. And that’s just the surface. I mean – John Coltrane!!! The roots go deep here and I just try to soak up as much of that spirit as I can.
At one point you quit the music business. What brought you back in?
Well, I didn’t completely quit. I kept my foot slightly dipped in. I designed a few gig posters for Philly shows (She & Him, Nick Cave, Echo and the Bunnymen, Pavement – did a tour poster for The Districts). I directed a few music videos for Zilla Rocca, Curly Castro, The Sky Drops. And I spent a lot of time working on my collage art and did some shows around that as well.
But then my wife gifted me an acoustic guitar so I could play for our newborn daughter. I had no experience singing and playing at the same time – I was simply a guitar player, with no interest in fronting my own band. I started learning old rock-n-roll songs – Ritchie Valens, Dylan, Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Ramones – because the chords are so simple.
I fell back in love with playing music again, and, when I realized I could sing, that opened up a whole new world for me. I got really into songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Gil Scott Heron. It lit a fire in me to start making music again.
What was the recording process like on Come On Angels!?
An absolute pleasure. By far the easiest time I’ve ever had making a record, and I credit that to Brian McTear and Matt Poirier at Miner Street Recordings.
Per Brian’s suggestion, we settled on five separate weekend sessions where we’d record and mix two songs in two days – start to finish, completely done. Most everything was recorded live to tape, except vocals, and without click tracks. Just a live band in a room. So the process was very organic and natural, much different from the usual assembly line approach of “OK, we’re gonna spend the next three days recording just guitars.” It was fun!
It kept things focused, yet fresh. Brian challenged us to keep things striped down and prevented us from getting in our own way. Less is more was the motto. Take out the dead weight and remove any makeup. He said “I want the listener to not only feel like they’re in the room with you, but that it’s the coolest room imaginable.” He offered more guidance then he even realized.
And Matt Poirier is a magician. During mixing, he would dip into his grab bag of assorted random analog pedals and weird devices to help add warmth, depth and texture to the overall sound. He created the atmosphere and space of the record. Plus he’s got superhuman hearing. And good taste in movies.
One of my favorites on the record is “June (90 Degrees).” How did that song come together?
Thank you. It’s one of mine as well. The inspiration for the lyrics came from a news story I read involving a preacher accused of murder. H00V3R, our bass player, has deep family roots in West Virginia, and he sent me some YouTube links about these southern Pentecostal church services and the practice of snake handling. People drinking strychnine as a form of proving faith – I’m fascinated by that kind of stuff so down the rabbit hole I slid, watching documentaries and reading articles. I hope to make it down there and attend a service sometime.
The video for “There Are No Secrets Here” was shot with an iPhone. How were you able to create such a visually-alluring video with rudimentary equipment?
The idea is always more important than the equipment. You can have the most expensive camera out there and still blow it. So I let the idea dictate everything. But I really prefer working with limitations. It forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you get creative with solutions.
On the technical side, there’s an app called FiLMiCPRO that allows you to adjust the iPhones camera settings (exposure time, white balance, focus, etc), just like you would on a film camera. Michel Gondry uses it occasionally.That was essential.
How have you and the band adjusted to creating and promoting new art during the new normal of COVID-19?
The rest of the band is on vacation. The record’s done so they’re just enjoying cocktails in the green room, waiting patiently to start playing gigs. I heard Mike’s been doing some sculpting. Dallas is working on some sort of perpetual motion machine. As for H00V3R – I don’t know. I heard rumor he was running an illegal gambling operation out of a church basement in Germantown but who knows. He’s an enigma.
I’m just here doing what I always do – making things. I finished the album artwork and got that off to the vinyl manufacturer. I’ve been teaching myself After Effects and learning really basic animation – our next video, “Come On Angels!” is going to be all animated. And I’ve continued to make collage art as well.
We’re all just pushing forward anyway we can – you gotta play the cards you’re dealt.
If you could have a dream gig once social distancing is over, who would you love to share a stage with?
Tom Waits would headline. Brian Fallon (Gaslight Anthem). Southern Culture on the Skids (H00v3R’s a big fan) and us (Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen). That’d be a helluva night for sure.