MAL THURSDAY'S VICTORY LAP
Once upon a time in the early ‘90s, the western Mass. indie music scene was a vibrant, buzzing place to be. Rumors floated through the air (and in the “industry” thanks to a Billboard article in 1992) constantly that the next big scene after Seattle was Northampton, Mass.
To a degree, that hype was well-founded: Bands like Sebadoh, New Radiant Storm King, and Scud Mountain Boys were attracting the attention of the music business. All of those bands (or their collective members) were widely hailed by the critics and hugely influential on a new crop of artists.
But there was a great local music scene prior to those halcyon days, and one individual who both participated in it, and then later promoted it, is returning to Massachusetts to get his due.
In 1984, a Hampshire College student on the seven-year plan, formed a garage-rock band heavily steeped in the music of The Seeds, The Sonics, DMZ, Lyres, and Roky Erickson, that decades later would be influential on a whole new generation of like-minded musicians. The band was The Malarians, and that guy was the snappily-monikered Mal Thursday. In 1986, the group released its seminal recording In the Cool Room (Chunk Records) and the rest as they say, is history.
While not a huge record in its time, In the Cool Room (remixed and remastered in 2009) defines an era, a genre, and ultimately The Malarians. The band recorded a CMJ charting EP, Know, in 1988, and recorded an unreleased LP, Malarians for Mothers and Daughters a/k/a Heavy Hits during that time. In 1989, after a series of line-up defections, the latest incarnation of the band recorded a live LP, Finished in This Town. And a year later, the band was indeed done.
Life After The Malarians
Mal Thursday went on to form The Cheetahs in the ‘90s, working in the same vein as The Malarians.
What really cemented Thursday’s stature in the local scene was the label that he ran, Chunk Records, and the Bay State Hotel (in Northampton, Mass.) where he booked bands from 1992-1995.
Chunk Records released more than two dozen records (mostly 45s and compilations on vinyl), many of them by local bands such as Zeke Fiddler, Steve Westfield, Tizzy, Queer, and The Veronica Cartwrights. The complete story of the label is lovingly re-created by Thursday in "The Chunk Records Story."
Thursday was partly responsible for growing a music scene in Northampton while booking the Bay State Hotel with local and national indie music groups. The Bay State Hotel had a comfy “living room” atmosphere that was both intimate and conducive to experiencing up-and-coming bands or bands that were breaking. For all that’s exciting about Northampton’s current music scene, nothing compares to those times.
Mal Thursday Returns
On June 3rd, Mal Thursday & The Cheetahs return to the Bay State (or the Sierra Grille, in Northampton, if you prefer), and The Malarians as well on June 10th. A sort of victory lap, The Cheetahs and The Malarians will also play a date each in Boston, while the Malarians play Worcester and Amherst (part of Hampshire College’s 40th anniversary).
Never one to be inactive, Thursday, now a family man living in Austin, TX, has been busy with numerous musical projects, most recently overseeing the re-releases of both of his old bands’ recording output, hosting a show on GaragePunk Podcast Network and writing a film column.
In a recent e-mail exchange with Hartford Indie Music Examiner, Thursday (real name: J.M. Dobies) talks retrospectively about his career, the Bay State Hotel, and why he’s touring again.
Examiner: How did a kid from Massena, NY, of all backwater ‘burgs, turn out like you?
MT: Growing up in Massena was sort of like growing up in Canada, in that it was 10 miles from the border, and an hour from Montreal. We got to enjoy the cultural benefits of Canadian television and radio. My parents were pretty cosmopolitan, my father being the young doctor who moved to the North Country because of the area’s Eisenhower-era boom economy with the St. Lawrence Seaway and the aluminum industry.
I always read a lot. I loved rock ‘n’ roll. I went to boarding school in 1977, where I first dabbled in music, and tried to sing with a band. In the Fall of 1980, I went to Hampshire College which was where I really got into music, much to the detriment of my studies (although I did eventually graduate seven years later).
Examiner: Tell me about your relationship with Jeff “Monoman” Connolly (of the band, Lyres). I remember vividly a show you did at the Bay State with him.
MT: First of all, Lyres rule. They are one of my all-time favorite bands. The first show I ever did with them was with The Malarians in the big room at Pearl Street to about 50 paying customers in a room that held 800 or something. It got better from there, with some great shows at the Rat, T.T. the Bear’s, Green St. Station, Sheehan’s and later the Bay State. I think they even played L’Oasis.
Some nights were not as epic, like the “Man or Monoman” show at the Northampton Bowl during Northampton Music Fest of 1999, where Mono was backed by members of The Unband, but most rocked, and rocked hard. Jeff is one of a kind, and his work with Lyres and DMZ deserves greater acclaim. That’s been my mission with doing the “Songs the Lyres Taught Us” series on The Mal Thursday Show, to recognize their greatness.
On the Bay State Hotel and Chunk Records
Examiner: The Bay State Hotel was an oasis in the desert that was the Valley. What are your fondest recollections of that period? Who were your favorite performers that came through?
MT: There’s a book to be written about the ‘92 -’95 Bay State-era, if only I could remember it. Just as those years represent one of the peaks of the live music scene in Northampton, they were also, not coincidentally, the peak years of my label, Chunk Records.
With Chunk and the Bay State, I tried to do too much and too soon. I booked too many shows and made too many records. If I’d had a plan, or a clue, things might have worked out better. They certainly couldn’t have worked out worse!
If I had it to do all over again, I would have done more of a 50-50 arrangement between the indie rock and the garage stuff. I gambled and lost on too many indie rock bands, but every piece of garage vinyl I ever released — Lyres, DMZ, The Cheetahs, all the way back to The Malarians, sold out of its pressing. Lesson learned, 15 years late.
As far as the greatest shows of that period, I remember the second show with Arthur Lee and Love in 1994, which was a Sunday night at the Bay State. The Pixies at Sheehan’s in ‘87, as well as Alex Chilton at the Iron Horse … Pavement at Pearl Street was a good one as well.
At the Bay State, there were so many great nights and great bands: Sebadoh, Royal Trux, The Grifters, Polvo, Flat Duo Jets, The Figgs, The Chesterfield Kings, and Lyres, of course. And then there was all the great local bands — The Unband, New Radiant Storm King, Supreme Dicks, The Veronica Cartwrights, Drunk Stuntmen, Tag Sale, Angry Johnny & The Killbillys, Ray Mason, Zeke Fiddler, Scud Mountain Boys, Gobblehoof, and so many more. I know I’m forgetting some big ones.
Examiner: Your days at the old WRSI in Greenfield, MA. were also a boon for the Valley. You did creative stuff on the “oldies show.” Do you think that you could get away with that stuff now, on a triple-A format radio station?
MT: I started out in college radio after I got out of college. “The Mal Thursday Show” started in 1987, and ran on WMUA (University of Massachusetts/Amherst) until 1990, at which point I got the “oldies” gig (on WRSI) replacing the late, great Buddy Rubbish. When the Bay State blew up in the spring of 1993, I was also coaching baseball at Hampshire College.
I lost both the radio show and the coaching gig that year.
Life in Austin
Examiner: You’re based in Austin, TX now. What has that been like, being so close to your own heroes like say, Roky Erickson? What do you think of the ongoing resurgence of Roky? Also, some folk from the Valley have migrated there: Matt Hebert (Ware River Club) in particular, what’s your thought on how things have come full-circle in terms of the music and the players? Does Austin feel like Northampton, or is that a pipe dream?
MT: Well, Austin is a city. There's two million people in the metro area. The problem I ran into with the scene in western Massachusetts is that we had more talent than we had an audience.
Ultimately, you’re playing to a variation on the same few hundred people every night.
Austin has great shows all the time, plus you’ve got Ian McLagan of the Small Faces playing for free at happy hour at the Lucky Lounge. Also, there’s a good garage scene with the Ugly Beats and Sons of Hercules — it’s my kind of town.
We love Roky, and it’s great to see him get recognition for his genius. It doesn’t always happen that way.
It’s cool that somebody like Matt Hebert would move here. We had some beers at Opal Divine’s, and talked about Austin and the Valley. I missed their last show at the Ghost Room — unfortunately, I had to watch the kids.
Examiner: How do you have the time to do all the projects, promotions and creative endeavors that you do, as a family man?
MT: It’s not easy, nor is it smooth. My wife flat out wants me to cancel the tour. She thinks I won’t make any money, that I’m just playing rock star. I don’t want to be away from my family for ten days. It was supposed to be five, but I got the offer from Church for the Friday night in Boston, and I took it. Now it’s two weekends, two bands, and six gigs in ten days. She’s not happy about it, and I don’t blame her.
Despite the fact that it’s not a popular move, I am committed to do it. Contracts have been signed, advance tickets have been sold. I have to do the tour.
Examiner: What are your thoughts on returning to Massachusetts to recreate a facsimile of a certain period in your life? What are your expectations, if any? And furthermore, why do it now?
MT: I have to do it now, because we’ll all be too old and feeble to do it later! My expectations are that that both bands will sound good, but The Malarians will blow people’s minds because it’s the classic show band — in black turtlenecks, playing all the greatest hits and more. It will be the real deal.
As for recreating bygone days, I wouldn’t want to live through all that again. I just want to play some music, and I’m hoping enough time has passed that people will say, “Hey, maybe he’s not such an asshole, after all.”