Headed to town with Shonen Knife for a set Sunday night at Bottom Lounge, I spoke with former Ramones bassist CJ Ramone about his latest solo effort Last Chance to Dance, the important role of Tommy Erdelyi in the creation of the Ramones, carrying on that band’s legacy and more…
Escaping the shadow of a former band can be difficult… Especially when that shadow looms as large as the one cast by seminal punk rock band the Ramones.
But following a number of post-Ramones projects, it’s a legacy that CJ Ramone seems to embrace more than ever on his latest solo record Last Chance to Dance.
Handling bass duties for the Ramones beginning in 1989, CJ provided a youthful spark that carried over into the studio on 1992’s Mondo Bizarro – his first album as a Ramone following the departure of Dee Dee and the band’s first studio project since 1989.
It was an era of transition for the band in a number of ways. At that point, Mondo Bizarro ended not only the group’s longest stretch without a studio record but also one that followed some of the most critically maligned studio output of their entire career. It was the band’s first album not released by Sire Records (Radioactive Records) and in addition to bass, CJ Ramone contributed either lead or backing vocals to a number of tracks, a trend that would continue on the final two Ramones studio projects as well.
Forging ahead in the creation of his own musical identity following post-Ramones projects like Los Gusanos and Bad Chopper, CJ Ward finally embraced his past releasing 2012’s Reconquista as CJ Ramone, his proper solo debut more than fifteen years after the Ramones breakup, artistic grown that continues on Last Chance to Dance.
But the landscape has changed considerably since his mid-90’s days with the Ramones, the music industry’s unquestionable peak as the popularity of the compact disc soared. After a number of years spent focusing on his family (a period in which he reportedly turned down bass overtures from Metallica – twice), in 2012 it was back to the stereotypical “do it yourself” punk rock method of release for his solo debut.
Following seven years with the Ramones in which he had no input in the band’s business end, incredibly, his deal with Fat Wreck Chords for his latest release marks the first record deal of his career. Last Chance to Dance is an album that waves the Ramones flag proudly, from the album art to the music itself, with CJ secure now in the role he plays in his former band’s historic legacy.
Gearing up for a tour alongside Shonen Knife that brings his band to Bottom Lounge Sunday night, I spoke with CJ Ramone about working with David Hidalgo, Jr. (Social Distortion), Dan Root and Steve Soto (The Adolescents) on Last Chance to Dance, the difference between crowdfunding a self-release and working with a label in 2015, some of his proudest moments as a Ramone, performing alongside Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister at the final Ramones concert and more. A lightly edited transcript of that lengthy interview follows below…
Q. When it comes to recording and touring now, you keep the CJ Ramone name – you’re not releasing your new solo albums as CJ Ward. I’ve also heard you’re performing Ramones material during your live sets. Do you feel that, in some way, it’s kind of your responsibility to recapture that Ramones legacy a bit?
CJ Ramone: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I was talking with Andy Shernoff, who played bass for The Dictators [backstage at the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash]. It was me, him and Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols actually. And Andy asked me, “How are your new records being received?” And I said, “I really feel lucky that the Ramones fans have responded as well as they have.” Because I didn’t want to bow out on my career just doing Ramones songs. At the same time, I can’t go up on stage and do music that is subpar. I don’t want to force my own stuff down people’s throats. But the response that I’ve gotten to my music has really, really been good. Even critically, it’s gotten really good reviews. So I feel totally lucky that people like my solo stuff.
But the fact of the matter is that I do mostly my stuff but I always do a bunch of Ramones songs at the end of the set. And that is absolutely because I want to keep the Ramones spirit alive.
Right now, music is kind of… not real great. It could just be the age gap and all of that stuff. But the Ramones music started a revolution and I’m hoping that if I can get out there – and even if the kids walk away with the smallest spark from seeing some of those songs, and my own songs, played live – maybe it can kick it off again. Maybe we can turn some young kids onto it again and get fired up again.
Because right now, there is a real serious lack of emotional depth in any of the music that I hear coming out. Like I said, it could be a generational thing – maybe I’m an old guy and I just don’t get it. The kids have their own thing going on or whatever. But, to me, all that teenage angst and that need to release is really – I don’t see it in a lot of bands.
That’s not to say there aren’t any bands out there or that I don’t dig newer bands. I really like Mean Jeans a lot. I really like Fidlar and Teenage Bottlerocket. There’s some newer bands that I like but the new stuff… I’m just on a whole different planet when it comes to it I guess. I don’t know.
Q. What role do you think technology, and easy access for kids to it, plays in all of that?
CJ: You know, part of the problem is corporate America and all the technology companies have figured out the formula for “cool.” And they’ve been able to sell all of this mind numbing crap technology to kids and really suck them in. Kids now are really, really sucked into technology.
And I absolutely utilize it myself – but not in the way I see my kids do. I go on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. When I wake up, the first thing I do is throw on some music to kind of get me motivated, to start moving. So I always put that up in the morning. But that’s not isolating me from other people. I’m interacting with other people that way.
Like my daughter and her boyfriend will sit on the couch across from each other and text each other! It sounds funny but, really, I’m concerned. It’s like taking the place of any interaction. So what happens there is… In my opinion, if everything you’re getting is from a digital feed – if all your information is through a digital feed and everything that you know comes through that little machine – that’s where that emotional disconnect comes in.
I’m hoping what’s gonna is happen is that at some point, kids are going to wake up and there’s gonna be a big push back against technology. There is some small things that have happened. But we really need like a big push back. That, to me, is really where the deficit comes in. I think kids aren’t being exposed enough to real, physical experiences in their life. Everything comes through that machine. And that can’t be good.
I think that’s probably why the music that most younger kids that I hear are making is sterile. It’s really, really sterile. Great players, unbelievable abilities to read [music] and do things right off the page [but sterile].
I know that’s a lengthy answer but it’s not an easy thing to explain. I’m frustrated by it to a certain extent so I tend to get wordier.
Q. With your last album Reconquista in 2012, you went a very DIY route, crowdfunding it without a label. For the new album Last Chance to Dance, it’s, obviously, a bit of a different approach, releasing it on Fat Wreck Chords. Having toured and recorded with the Ramones at the peak of the major label system in the 90’s, what’s it like for you now operating in this new music industry landscape?
CJ: The first one, doing the crowdfunded record [Reconquista], that was a lot of fun. That was really cool. I did hand made drawings that I sold. I did handwritten lyric sheets. “I love New York” postcards. I got to do all this fun stuff that was really different.
But I gotta tell you… I think, probably, a lot of times it’s easier for bands to do that. For me, because I don’t have band members who share responsibility, it was really all on me and one friend who came over. We must have packed up over 1,000 packages. We actually hand-stuffed every one of them. It was really an involved process that took a lot of work.
So when I was preparing to do Last Chance to Dance, I was going to just do it on my own [again]… and thankfully Fat Wreck Chords stepped up and was interested. They really liked us and they signed us up and put it out. This is my first record deal so my experience is next to nothing – with the Ramones, I had nothing to do with the business, the record companies or anything. All I’ve known since then – my first band Los Gusanos and then Bad Chopper and [Reconquista] – was just hustling, getting out on the road and selling them myself.
But I’ve gotta tell you, it is really very convenient when I can just concentrate on being a touring musician instead of concentrating on being a touring musician, a businessman, a distributor and everything else that comes along with it. It’s definitely a lot more pleasant experience.
In fact, because they are really a good, reputable punk rock label, I just felt more comfortable going with [Fat Wreck Chords]. The other beautiful thing is, it doesn’t matter [what town] we go, when we get there our records are in the stores. There’s always press ahead of time. People know about the shows. That’s always what I struggled with before was just getting the word out – that I was going to be out on tour, that I was coming through. Which is also why I decided just to go out as CJ Ramone too. Sometimes it was just lost in translation when I’d be out with Bad Chopper or Los Gusanos. People would be like, “Oh! I didn’t realize that was your band.” So I figured I’d cut to the chase and let everybody know from the get-go.
Q. As has been pointed out in many reviews, there’s a definite Ramones feel to a lot of the songs on Last Chance to Dance. Was it a concerted effort to write a bit more in that vein?
CJ: Going back through my solo records, if you look at Los Gusanos, it’s a completely different style. With Los Gusanos, I didn’t play bass. I played guitar. I was really experimenting and teaching myself guitar and trying to distance myself to a certain extent. I made a concerted effort to distance myself from the Ramones with that band. But if you look at the next record I put out – In 2007, I put out the Bad Chopper record – there is some definite Ramones stuff that is apparent on that record.
But I find that the older I get, the closer to my roots I get when I write. I don’t consciously sit down and say, “I want to write a song that sounds like [the Ramones song] ‘Danny Says.’” That’s not what I do. I just sit down and I write songs – and if they’re good they go on the record.
To me, [Last Chance to Dance] really covers a lot of ground. If you take a song like “Cluster f-ck,” it’s a total hardcore song – like an 80’s style hardcore song. Dan Root [of The Adolescents] wrote the music for that. I wrote the lyrics. And then you have something like “Til the End” on it which is definitely very Joey Ramone-esque in the melody line and even the progression on it.
But it’s not intentional. I write everything on an acoustic guitar. So I sit down and I just start playing around and if I hear a little bit of something I like, I just start working on it from there. Some songs are just in your head and written. You put the pencil to paper and all the lyrics come out, the melody line is there and you already have the main riff in your head. It’s a weird little thing but it does happen that way sometimes.
But I don’t make a conscious effort to try and write anything. I just try and write good songs and that’s it.
Q. You worked on three studio albums with the Ramones: Mondo Bizarro, Acid Eaters and ¡Adiós Amigos! How different is the experience now in the studio, recording your own music, as opposed to recording as a member of the Ramones?
CJ: Recording with the Ramones was… interesting. You had Johnny who just didn’t have any patience for the studio and didn’t enjoy it at all. Then you had Mark who was a perfectionist. So there were times we’d be in the studio and I’d have to run thirty takes of one song with Mark until he got it where he liked it. And not that he made any mistakes or messed up or nothing like that – he was just a real perfectionist in the studio. And, I mean, that’s obvious on the albums too. But Johnny would walk out and I would have to stand there and play and it would just be bass and drums recording – which was about as non-exciting as you could possibly get.
But the way the whole process worked was demo tapes would be submitted. We would all get copies of the demo tapes. We would listen to it for a couple of days. We’d get together and there’d be a vote on which songs would go on to the record. Then a compilation tape would be made of those songs. I would get it, I’d bring it home, I’d figure everything out, go to rehearsal [and] I’d teach Johnny the guitar parts – But I had to learn all the vocal lines and vocals too because Joey didn’t come to rehearsals.
So I would have to learn everything and we’d get into the rehearsal studio for a week. We’d go over the songs and learn them so that we were prepared before we went in [to the studio]. Then we’d go into the studio. Johnny would usually last about two or three takes of one song and walk out and then I would spend hours on end doing drum tracks with Mark.
When Mark was done with drum tracks… It depended who we were working with. When we were with [Producer] Ed Stasium, I think I did bass right after drums. And, generally, because I was so well rehearsed and because I was figuring it out, my bass tracks never took more than two hours. I was hyper-prepared for the most part.
And then I wasn’t allowed back in the studio. I wasn’t allowed in!
And then from there on out, it would be Johnny’s guitar, Joey’s vocals and then Ed would go in and do some of his nice little guitar overdubs. Or [Producer] Daniel Rey. I don’t want to forget Daniel – Daniel was important to the Ramones too.
And that’s pretty much how it went.
With my band it’s much different. It’s much more relaxed and loose.
Q. Founding Ramones member Tommy Erdelyi/Ramone credited you with “keeping the band young” during the Ramones’ induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What does something like that mean to you?
CJ: If you were going to get that compliment from anybody, and it was gonna count for something, it woulda been Tommy. Because Tommy was the guy. Tommy created the Ramones. He was the guy. He came up with the look. He came up with the sound. He told everybody what instruments they were going to play. Tommy had vision that very few people have. Very few people have that kind of vision. Who would’ve ever picked Joey Ramone to be a frontman? And anybody that says they would’ve – that they would’ve seen the possibility there – is full of crap. Nobody would’ve ever picked Joey to be the frontman. Chances are, nobody would’ve ever picked Joey to be in that band! He would’ve been the guy that gets picked last for dodgeball. Without a doubt.
But Tommy had that kind of vision. He understood things in a much different way. He saw the Ramones, early on, as the evil Bay City Rollers. That’s where they stole all their riffs from! [In the Ramones song “Do You Remember Rock ‘N’ Roll Radio Radio?”] (sings) “Rock ‘n, rock ‘n roll radio – let’s go!” That’s just, “S.A.T.U.R.D.A.Y. Night!” (sings Bay City Rollers song “Saturday Night”)
Tommy understood that whole thing. It was like, “The Bay City Rollers are nice boys so we’re gonna make tough, street boys.” Very few people would’ve ever come up with that combination – to take bubble gum [pop music] and make it tough. But that was bubble gum done New York style.
So getting that compliment from Tommy was really big. I was really happy to hear it. Because Johnny and Joey had already said in interviews what they felt my place in the band was… (laughs) And that was a huge compliment.
When Tommy said that at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, I was there as a guest. I actually went to the ceremony as a guest. Dee Dee actually gave me his guest ticket – because I hadn’t been invited. So Dee Dee gave me his ticket.
So to be sitting in the audience and hear Tommy say that, that really meant a lot to me.
Q. Looking back at your time as a member of the Ramones (1989-1996), is there any moment that you’re particularly proud of?
CJ: There’s the obvious things like my first time on stage with them. A whole slew of other great moments of playing onstage with different people or at the last show. But, realistically, because I was such a big fan before I was in the band, it’s really the more personal stuff – the personal moments of hanging out with Johnny and Joey that really are the ones that will stay in my memory for good, that are the most important.
I’m not trying to sound overly dramatic or make this into a soap opera but probably the best moment that I had – the most important one anyway… When Johnny was sick – at this point he was just a couple of days from dying – he got in touch with me and Gene Frawley (who was Johnny’s right hand guy for years and who actually manages me now). He got in touch with us and asked us to come up to his house. So we went up to his house. He was obviously in a lot of pain at that point and he was pretty much bedridden. We were saying goodbye and we all recognized this would be the last time we saw each other. Johnny, in his usual short and to the point way, said to me, “CJ, thanks a lot. You really did a good job.”
I know there’s a lot of stuff out there about Johnny, about what a pr-ck he was and this and that. To me, because I just came out of the Marine Corps when I got into the band, I understood Johnny and the way he worked and the way he operated. I always got along with him good. He kind of became my teacher or my mentor while I was in the band. So right there at the end – the last time we’re going to see each other – for him to say that to me, really meant a lot to me. Because Johnny was a very unemotional person and very rarely would say anything like that.
So that really… If I had to pick one memory, that would probably be the one that will stay with me the longest.
Q. You mentioned being on stage and performing at the last Ramones concert in 1996 – a live set that’s documented on the We’re Outta Here! box set. I know you grew up as a fan so there’s one moment from that concert in particular that I’m curious about: What was it like that night performing the song “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” onstage with Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead (a song born out of Lemmy’s love of the Ramones)?
CJ: That’s probably my next biggest memory! I didn’t want to say that because people are like, “You played in the f—ing” Ramones! What’s the big deal?”
The first time I heard that song, when I heard that line, “CJ now hit the gas” I was like – it was just the most surreal, unbelievable, awesome moment to have Lemmy mention me in a song. And regardless of being in the Ramones or anything else. But then to be next to him onstage, jamming out together, singing together – him singing harmonies and everything. It was just – even now, I watch that video and the hair stands up on the back of my neck. It’s that moment where everything in the universe is just perfect. You know what I mean? Where, it’s never gonna get any better than this. There’s nothing that’s ever going to top this.
And I’ve been onstage with some big acts – other bands that I really like and love and really enjoy. But there’s a real select group from rock and roll history – real, real select. People that stand completely on their own, apart from every scene. Apart from everything. There are just very, very select few people like that. And Lemmy is one of those people to me. To me, Lemmy is one of those people. He is just an icon beyond the U2 type of icon or Madonna or anything like that – like a really serious, folk hero who just unbelievably stands on his own.
All these years, I’ve always hoped that an opportunity would come up for me to possibly record with Lemmy or do something with him. If I had to pick one person that I could work with before I get out of this game, I would definitely like to do something with Lemmy.
So that moment – and I’ve said that before when people ask that – I say that: when I was on stage with Lemmy.
But a much more personal moment, like I said, is definitely saying goodbye to Johnny. That’s the one that had the most impact on me.
But I’ll tell ya… Lemmy runs a damn close second to that one!
– Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Sunday’s CJ Ramone show below)
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Sunday, June 7, 2015
Doors open at 8PM
Show starts at 9PM
17 years and over
Also performing: Shonen Knife
Click HERE to purchase tickets