Words by Jim Testa
After almost 20 years, New Jersey’s Roadside Graves continue to create a thoughtful, evocative, often literary-themed mix of Americana, folk, and indie-rock. The group’s fifth full-length album That’s Why We Were Running Away, released on Don Giovanni Records earlier this Spring, follows in that tradition, a somber song-cycle about acceptance and perseverance, and the decisions we all face in the space between “I want to leave” and “I want to believe.”
While written and recorded long before Covid-19 forced America into self-imposed lockdown, the album’s themes mesh perfectly with our current national mood of isolation, disillusionment, and despair. The band jokes that “overlooked” and “underappreciated” are the words most often used by fans to describe it.
Originally formed in the suburban borough of Metuchen, New Jersey, the Roadside Graves started finding an audience in the early 2000’s at New Brunswick’s ramshackle dive bar, The Court Tavern. A recording deal with Aquarium Drunkard’s Autumn Tone label early on helped the band establish a presence across the country, from gigs at SXSW and Colorado’s fabled Red Rocks amphitheater to saloons, tattoo parlors, and DIY basements in small towns and big cities alike. These days, the band finds itself spread around the globe, with members scattered throughout the tri-state area (and even abroad).
Like most indie bands who skirt the edges of obscurity with a small but devoted fan base, the Roadside Graves have stuck it out through day jobs, families, and personnel changes, although the core of the band remains singer-lyricist John Gleason, guitarist Jeremy Benson, and keyboardist Johnny Piatkowski. On the new album, they’re joined by drummer and vibraphonist Colin Ryan, bassist Dave Jones, and guest vocalists Renee Maskin and Dana Sellers.
For its three most recent albums, the Graves partnered with Don Giovanni Records, the cutting edge Jersey label that’s also home to Garden State icons Mikey Erg and Screaming Females. Offshelf spoke with vocalist and lyricist John Gleason about his band’s long journey and its future.
Off Shelf: I have to be honest, when I got the email announcing this new album from Don Giovanni, it came as a pleasant surprise. You guys have been so under the radar that I wasn’t sure you were still together.
John Gleason: You’re not alone. I have a friend who’s been a fan for a long time, and every time we announce a new record, he emails me and asks, “so this is the last one?” [laughs] He just did it again. And I tell him, “We’re trying, man!” But the general consensus is that if you don’t release something at least every four years, you’re done.
OS: Your band has actually been consistent in releasing an album every four or five years though. It’s just that you gig a lot less now than in the past. A lot of older bands don’t pursue shows with as much rigor but often have a behind-the-scenes band life that the public doesn’t see. Is that the case with you?
JG: Yeah, that’s us. We would have slowed down our gigging regardless of anything else. Our band life ten years ago versus now couldn’t be any different. Even when we were only putting records out every four years, we were practicing every single week. Also at that time, we were all living in New Jersey together, which made things much easier. I was the only one in the band at the time who had a child and had started that second part of your life that at 18 you never even think about. I was the one who jumped in and that made it a little bit harder for everyone else to maintain that band lifestyle. Right after my child was born, we went on a summer tour for five weeks and that put a major strain on my relationship, so those things just had to change. It’s hard to call your wife from Los Angeles, when your child is still under one years old, and you tell her that you had played to five people the night before. It’s not like I could say, “hey, I’m bring home the mortgage money!” In actuality I’m calling her to cheer me up because I’m so depressed.
I’m exaggerating a little, not all nights were that terrible, but during that period – 2010 to 2012 – my life got a lot trickier. We went from rehearsing once a week to once a month, and now, fast forwarding ten years, we go months without getting together. Jeremy [Benson], our guitarist, got married and moved to Rhode Island and had a baby, so now he and I are the only two members who share that experience, and it definitely makes it a little rougher. When Jeremy moved to Rhode Island, we had a big decision to make, and we talked about if this band was still worth it, if it was still worth the headache. When it takes 20 emails to organize one band practice, you start to wonder. But the beauty of it is that Jeremy and I have always been together in this. And if we go two or three months without talking or practicing or writing a song, we feel it, and we miss it, and one of us always reaches out and says, “hey, we have to get together.” And then everyone just kind of sighs in relief. So we probably practice every two or three months now, but to balance it out now, Jeremy and I have started writing songs through GoogleDocs, which still can feel foreign and cold and not as good as sitting in a basement for hours, but we still get to write together. And we’re probably going to write different things because of working that way… maybe better, maybe not. But that’s where we’re at. And when we get Jeremy down because we’re going to record or play the rare show, we get together and practice all day. Because we do get rusty, but we still like to play in front of people, and we take pride in sounding good when we do it, and we probably derive more satisfaction from it than the people who are watching.
OS: This album was written long before anyone had ever heard the words Covid-19, but it was released in late May when we were in the thick of the pandemic, and the mood just seems so perfect for the moment.
JG: I had only listened to the record when we were working on it and mixing it, so when it was about to come out, I went back and played it really for the first time all the way through – I took it for a walk around the neighborhood in my headphones – and in between the lyrics and the somber tone of the entire record, I thought, this feels right, this feels appropriate. There’s no way I had any sense to make that happen, it’s just a strange coincidence. But other people have said that when they listen to the record, they find a sense of hope that guides all the sorrow and sadness in the lyrics.
And I kind of hope I meant to do that, because I am a pretty hopeful person. I have doubts and depression like anyone else, but I have days when I look around and just feel extremely fortunate at everything that’s happened to me and my family. But then I realize that I just had two cups and coffee and it’s just the caffeine making me feel so good. [laughs] But that’s how my brain works! Being hopeful is not a normal state for me, but it’s definitely a part of how I think. I am not a jovial person by any means, but I do have moments.
OS: I’ve always felt that most of your earlier books were often inspired by great works of literature, but this one felt more personal somehow.
JG: I appreciate that. I don’t know why I always had to lean towards literature. I think it’s fair to say that my life’s not been interesting enough for a song, or so I thought. But if I could capture a feeling that I felt while reading someone else’s work, that I could tie in a little bit of myself. Otherwise it’s pointless. Even with We Can Take Of Ourselves – which was based on S.E. Hinton’s classic YA novel The Outsiders – it’s tied to the book, but there are so many moments from my own life in those lyrics.
I’ve eventually come to realize that anything I’ve been through in my own life, even if it’s not interesting, could at least be valuable to other people who are probably in similar situations, who might feel that their lives aren’t that interesting ether. For me, the moment when I realized that yeah, I could do that, was when Mark Kozelek switched it up and started writing their open diary type songs. When that happened, something clicked inside me. When you listen to music, you get these little clicks, and you think, oh, you could write about that. That’s okay. I can’t write about this.
Jeremy and I are already talking and sharing notes about writing a record about Rumblefish, another Hinton YA novel. So here I am, going back. I wrote about myself for a little while, and now maybe it’s time to go back to that inspiration again.
OS: You work with young children in your career, no?
JG: I used to teach second grade for 17 years, but now I’m a public school librarian, or ‘media specialist’ as we call it today, and I work with pre-K through third grade. So I see a total of about 700 kids a week. I have a real fear of older kids. I think they’d see right through to my soul and just tear me apart. I have a good sense of younger kids and I can talk to them for 18 years. Sometimes I worry when I talk to adults, I think I must sound really stupid since I’m so used to it. It’s not that I talk down to kids, but I’m just used to over explaining things, and I take comfort in really silly things, because I’m just used to entertaining and teaching that age.
My wife teaches middle school kids and she really inspired the Outsiders record, because she’s been teaching that book for years and she would always tell me the response she gets from it, often from kids that you didn’t get much response from about anything. But they’d actually sit up in class because of this one book.
OS: Anything else you wanted to mention?
JG: I just wanted to thank you for writing about the record and us. God knows it’s so hard to promote an album these days. And it’s not like any of us spend a lot of time on social media. We don’t even have a Roadside Graves Instagram. We did, but we don’t do enough to make it worthwhile. I find every release gets more and more difficult to promote. We’re so fortunate to be on Don Giovanni.