CULTURE- Interview- Two Maniacs: Morphing folk, pop, and each other

When Natalie Merchant announced her departure from 10,000 Maniacs during the summer of 1993, jokes revolving around the number 9,999 were so prevalent on morning radio shows the following day that they had undeniably jumped the shark by 7:45am. The poor hosts were misinformed, though: after properly accounting for John Lombardo and Mary Ramsey, perhaps the number ought to have been 9,997.

It's a little more complicated than that, though. Lombardo was one of the founding members of the band, but left before their popular success with the late 1980s albums In My Tribe and Blind Man's Zoo. He began working with Ramsey isntead, but also collaborated with the band again after their popular success had begun, helping orchestrate the "Hope Chest" reissues collection – since, after all, it was drawing from an early body of work consisting largely of his compositions.  John and Mary opened up for the band on the 1990 tour, and Ramsey was a guest musician on the 1992 album Our Time In Eden as well as for the seminal MTV Unplugged performance in early 1993. After Merchant split, both rejoined the band for two more albums. Ramsey was voted off the proverbial island in 2002 to make room for new lead vocalist Oskar Saville, and she took the fuming Lombardo along with her.

Early John and Mary albums featured appearances by Maniacs Jerry Augustyniak and Rob Buck, but more time reflecting on Buck's passing in late 2000 may have have finally given all parties sufficient cause to put aside their differences. Ramsey toured with the band again for a 2006 spin through Brazil, where the Mary-fronted song "More Than This" had been a considerable hit, and Lombardo recently made an appearance at the band's 25th anniversary concert. But through it all, Ramsey and Lombardo have maintained a separate, highly productive working relationship, putting out several albums as a duo that are clearly rooted in the same mating of folk and pop as the band they've occasionally been known to steer.

The Hook: I understand you're working on an album with a cast of musicians from your hometown.

Mary Ramsey: It's a different way of recording, because in the past we've gone to the studio and try to get everything done as quickly as possible because of the cost, and this time it's like a piecework. It's a labor of love. My feeling is that I think that there isn't as much of an appreciation of music as in years past. When one makes a CD these days, one has to think of it as something that's not going to sell a lot of copies and make a lot of money. It's just about expressing yourself in the music.

The Hook: Has being independent helped with that?

John Lombardo: A label is interested in moving product. They look at the marketplace and see the performers that are successful, and they encourage you to be like that, like a copycat movie. If you're very unique or you do something that's very unusual, they might like it but might not want to take a chance on you financially. When we first found ourselves independent again, there's a sense of sadness, it's almost like being rejected by a girlfriend. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that the labels are being run by businessmen. If you look at the history of music, there were certain acts that never really connected until their fourth or fifth record. Nowadays, many young bands don't get that chance. If you don't have a huge record your first time out, you might not get the chance to make a second record. And if you do, they're in control. If you're 0 for 2, you're out.

The Hook: Have labels been inclined to trust you given your close ties to an established successful act?

John Lombardo: The songs that I wrote with 10,000 Maniacs in the early days are quite similar to what Mary and I do, but once I left the group, their sound did change quite a bit. But when Mary and I rejoined after Natalie left, we really did the majority of the songwriting at that point.

Mary Ramsey: Both John and I have been the sound of 10,000 Maniacs at certain points in the history of that band. I was lead vocalist and songwriter for six or seven years, and John started that group in 1981 and had an influence on Natalie and the guys in terms of songwriting. It's totally natural. We've been morphing in and out of each other for a long time. It's like Fairport Convention.

The Hook: So what's the most important benefit of doing it in the duo format?

Mary Ramsey: The one-on-one partnership. We've known each other for almost twenty years, and we have a way of collaborating. It's unique and it's special to us. We come from two different worlds. I learned classical viola, and he's self taught, and there's this weird overlap. I'm inspired by him, and he's inspired by me.

John Lombardo: These days, there's a lot of opportunity to play in smaller venues and more acoustic venues. When we were with 10,000 Maniacs, we were never very good at that, it was always geared towards a larger presentation. And Mary and I have been playing together for so long, that when we go out, we can operate with 200 songs. We never have a set list written out. When you have a band, it's more structured. And there's an intimacy; you do certain songs that are a lot more personal.

Case in point: John and Mary perform at Gravity Lounge on Sunday at 7pm.

John Lombardo and Mary Ramsey once made up the creative core of 10,000 Maniacs.