Somebody has probably made this joke before, but it’s a daunting task when you are assigned to interview 10,000 Maniacs.
Talk to 10,000 maniacs? What am I, the US Census Bureau? Then you find out that you only have to interview one Maniac, charming lead singer Mary Ramsey, and it turns out fine.
10,000 Maniacs is, of course, the name of the six-piece band from Jamestown, New York, whose quirky electric folk music held a unique position at the top of the charts on college radio and alternative rock in the 1980s and ’90s. Nobody else sounded anything like them, then or now.
You’ll get the chance to hear that unique sound when the band visits The Clyde Theatre on Sunday, June 19, while celebrating their 40th anniversary.
“If you want longevity with something, then you have to keep reinventing it, and we’ve hung in there for a long time,” Ramsey said in an interview with Whatzup. “There is such interest in the female voice telling the story, and we bring new songs. It’s a big basket of a lot of different thing. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. We have enough in our catalog to entertain for quite a while.”
Past, Present, and Future
Today’s Maniacs are Ramsey on vocals and five-string viola, guitarist John Lombardo, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson, drummer Jerry Augustyniak, and guitarist Jeff Erickson. Backing them on tour is Maggie Zindle on vocals and viola. Four of the men have formed the core of the band since their start in the early 1980s in Jamestown, in the western corner of New York State.
Still looming over them are the shadows of founding singer Natalie Merchant, who left the band for a solo career in 1993, and founding guitarist Robert Buck, who died in 2000.
In the early ’80s, 10,000 Maniacs made a connection with Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M., the only group that seemed like their peers. The Maniacs’ breakthrough came as they opened for R.E.M. during a 1985 tour, supporting their major label debut album The Wishing Chair, which got significant critical acclaim, but no hits.
Following their debut album, they had a run of three albums from 1987-92 that sold a combined 5 million copies in the US.
Their sophomore effort, 1987’s In My Tribe, brought them into the top 10 of the alternative rock chart with singles including “Like the Weather” and “What’s the Matter Here?” With Merchant’s warm though somehow distant voice, and the band’s gentle, midtempo folk sound, jangly guitars, and slightly cheesy organ, they could take on topics from depression to child abuse, and address them from a grown-up, feminine perspective. The band paved a path for the female-fronted alternative rock bands that would follow in the ’90s.
In 1989, Blind Man’s Zoo brought the hit “Trouble Me,” an uplifting, easygoing song from an otherwise pessimistic album. It went to the top of the alternative rock chart while also hitting top 10 on the adult contemporary chart, making a mark on mainstream rock and the Billboard Hot 100 as well. The Maniacs were everywhere.
The 1992 release Our Time in Eden was a lavishly-produced affair with horns and strings. It was also Ramsey’s introduction to the band, as she was a session viola player who would go on to tour as backing vocalist. The band continued to ride high with “These Are Days” and “Candy Everybody Wants,” which were by turns uplifting and deeply ironic.
Their 1993 MTV Unplugged broadcast was released as a blockbuster album that sold more than 3 million copies, but Merchant had long planned an exit to become a solo artist.
With her having stepped into a difficult role 25 years ago, after all the time since, I wanted to ask Ramsey if it finally feels comfortable this time around.
“Yes, it does,” she said. “It is second nature in terms of performing. It’s not about trying to replace Natalie Merchant. It’s about honoring her. I really feel like that. And I hope she thinks the same way.”
Time for Revival
The band’s comeback album, 1997’s Love Among the Ruins, was their first with Ramsey as lead singer. It produced their highest-charting studio single ever, their cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” The band had a successful tour of theaters, but the album did not chart.
While members of the band toured as often as they could, the years since would see the founding members and Ramsey reunite twice to produce albums, funded independently.
During the pandemic the band started collaborating again in anticipation of their big milestone, their 40th anniversary. They celebrated with a concert in Jamestown on May 21 to a sold-out crowd of 1,500 in the grand old Palace Theater, now called the Reg Lenna Center.
I spoke to a rather exhausted, yet cheerful, Ramsey from her home in Buffalo, New York, just two days after that, and was amazed to learn she had been struggling with laryngitis for three weeks, but went on performing anyway. She even did some sets with John & Mary, her long-running project with Maniacs guitarist John Lombardo.
As for what it feels like to keep a band going from the 1900s into the 2000s, Ramsey joked, “Everybody who’s in the group now has been in the group for two centuries.”
Celebrating an anniversary just as it has become possible to resume touring has been a strange experience.
“I can’t quite explain it,” she said. I can’t figure it out totally. We’ve never really had as many people come to our shows as this is happening now, with vim and vigor, and also familiarity with our songs.
“We’ve been very busy since the pandemic lifted, but before that we were working on stuff,” she added. “We have a lot of new songs and it’s not going to take very long for us to put an album together.”
Will we hear some new songs in Fort Wayne?
“Yes, you will,” she said.