Hey everyone. Thanks for checking in. Today we have the awesome Joe Keller formerly of the Ergs and currently the bassist for Night Birds. He is a stand up dude and an INCREDIBLE musician. I was really excited to read this and I hope you are too.Thanks again for reading <3
What was the first band you were in and what got you into music?
The first band I was in was called The Flatliners and it was with your dear husband, Jeff Schroeck. I replaced the first bass player, Kyle. I don't know what exactly got me into music, I guess it was an escape and a way to learn about taboo things in an age before the internet.
You have an incredibly strong work ethic when it comes to music but you don't make it seem like work when you play! Talk about this and about whether or not this has always been the case.
Thank you! When I started playing music, all of the other guys I was playing with were already good – Jeff Schroeck, Mike Yannich, Jeff's cousins, a couple other guys. They were legit good in high school – not just good for kids, actually proficient. So when I decided to play bass, I knew I had to get decent quickly if I was going to be able to hang. That meant I had to do all of these drills and scales to get good enough to play with them. I think it was just a habit that stuck.
You are also an engineer. How do you balance these two (fairly) different aspects of your life. Do they facilitate each other?
They don't go together at all! Somehow, over the years I have through mostly just dumb luck fallen into a situation where I can work as an engineer and do a band on a slightly-greater-than-just-a-hobby level. Once I realized that the odds of being able to live off of being in a band were even slimmer than they had been in previous decades, I had to strike some sort of balance between the two instead of just pursuing one.
When did you meet Mike and Jeff and how have your relationships changed over the years?
Oh man, this could be a whole book right here. I’ll do the abridged version: I met Mike first in freshman year of high school. Mike, myself, and a bunch of other alterna-teens and nascent punks all sat at the same lunch table. Mike's band, Visual Purple, was playing one of those god-awful Saturday matinees at Club Bene (later Club Krome, later an abandoned building) and I attended. My first memorable interaction with Jeff was watching him play a set with Mike. He had a dyed blonde skunk stripe in the middle of his hair and he was wearing hospital pants – he was tall even back then and was, despite his appearance, somehow very mature so I thought he was a senior in high school, but he was actually two grades below me. Right after he hit the last note of the last song, he threw his guitar square into Mike's drums. Mike then toppled over his remaining cymbals. All of this was pretty standard operating procedure for high school bands at the time, but this was mere weeks after some poor kid had taken a cymbal to the head at Club Bene and subsequently died. So, of course I thought Visual Purple was the coolest thing in the world even though they bummed the local skinheads out so much that they just sat on the edge of the stage for pretty much all of their set.
The Ergs years were obviously the tightest we all were – we all went through a lot in that band. It was a very strong bond. Unfortunately, when the band broke up, I took out a lot of my frustration on Jeff – I didn’t talk to him for about a year. I had a lot of misplaced anger. Thankfully, we have patched things up since then – even now, Jeff is the more mature one. I still keep in touch with both of them although we don’t hang out at nearly the same level as we used to because that would mean we’d be in extremely close quarters in a van 50% of our waking hours. When we’re in the same room now, it only takes about 60 seconds before we lapse into the same gibberish in-joke we used to say all the time, though.
Talk about the evolution of pre-Ergs to full-on Ergs and about your first experiences playing together.
The Flatliners morphed into a band that was Jeff, Mike, myself, and a drummer, Helen Destroy (who went on to drum for The Lunachicks and Lez Zeppelin). Mike was on lead vocals and guitar. Helen lived kind of far away so she couldn’t come to practice super often. When she wasn’t around, the rest of us would fool around with songs in the Ergs configuration only with Jeff doing most of the lead vocals. We were supposed to do a “reunion” show one night in Jersey City on New Year’s Eve 2001 and Helen couldn’t make it so we did 75% Off instead. The night after, it was either Jeff or Mike, can’t remember who, who decided we should just do that as our main band. We changed the name to The Ergs and went from there.
How has Night Birds changed over the course of a few years and do you have specific goals for what you want to accomplish?
It definitely feels like Night Birds 2.0 now with PJ and Ryan in the band instead of Mike and Coastman. I like both eras though. PJ and Mike are both such different guitar players with their own distinct style. I don't think Night Birds would have ever been good at all if we didn't have Mike starting off – you know just as well as I do what that crazy weirdo brings to the table. He was the first musician that really made me think about tone – from guitar tone to overall sound of a record. PJ gave the band a whole new slant and I think it comes off in the recordings we did with him.
I didn't really have any expectations when Night Birds started – I guess I wanted to do something very different from The Ergs to see if I could. The one goal I had as a musician was to tour Europe (well, that's a lie I also wanted to play on the Conan O'Brien show, but that dream is dead since he doesn't have the same show anymore) and I got to do that with Night Birds. So everything now is pretty much gravy.
What was it like embarking on a new band after being in a very successful band? Did you feel like you had to start all over? Were you worried about people's expectations for your new project?
I hated it. I freaked out the first 9 months or so after The Ergs ended. It's silly to think this now but I thought I was done in terms of ever being in a band – like I was not fit or able to be in a band again. I had some serious bass player inferiority complex going on. I had been doing the Ergs for so long and so hard that stopping it just broke my brain. A former member of Duke Ellington's band once famously said that after he stopped playing with Ellington, it felt like he “slept for a year.” I definitely felt like that – I was drained from working a full time job and then playing shows on weeknights where I'd get back home at 2-3AM only to get up again at 6AM to go to work the next day, kinda like Steve Martin's character in “All of Me.” So I slept for a year, but after that it was sort of a blank slate situation and then I was kind of cleared of any worry over expectations.
But despite all of that, there are a lot of fun feelings being in a brand new band that I had completely forgotten since the beginning of The Ergs (my general rule after 2003 or so is one band at a time.) For instance, when you start out, if you don't write a song every week, you will have nothing to do at that next practice. So there's that urgency to write something – or playing a first show. All that stuff was new again to me.
Looking back, it was definitely a good thing for all three of us, though. I always like to draw parallels between personal romantic relationships and being in a band. Since we started the Ergs when Jeff was still in high school, the band was like marrying your high school sweetheart right after the prom and never dating anyone else, if that makes any sense. You need to have a couple of relationships and make mistakes before you have a good long lasting one with someone. Since we never broke up, none of us learned things about being in a band that one really only reflects on and considers after the band is done (I am speaking for Jeff and Mike here so I don't know if they agree.) But myself personally, I know that as soon as I was in another band I realized how TERRIBLE of a show booker I was. We were playing all of these awful shows at the very end of the band's career when we were supposedly this (relatively) big deal.
Where did you grow up and what is your family like? Have they always been supportive of your musical goals?
I grew up mostly in Old Bridge, NJ. My parents were both public school teachers. They have always been ok with my musical goals – although they really have no interest in the music itself, which is fine. There was an era of The Ergs where we would practice at my folks' place. I think they sort of looked at music as the thing that would keep me out of real trouble – I’m sure they were worried I would do drugs but they were pretty sure I wouldn’t steal anyone’s car if I was in the garage playing Kraftwerk covers.
What was your school experience like? What role if any did those experiences play in becoming a musician?
I know it's such a stereotypical thing to say, but I was a total nerd and was treated accordingly. I think everyone should have a shitty time in high school though – I think the people who are on top of the social ladder in high school usually wind up the most screwed up later in life (although a lot of the time, those very same people on top were not having a great time either.) You need the misery and humiliation of high school to prepare you for the real world. So of course that sort of environment is what led me to hang out with similar weirdos such as Mike Yannich and listen to freak music like punk rock.
Any paranormal experiences?
I once slept in a cabin that formerly served as a hospital for Nazi soldiers in WWII but thankfully I was not accosted by SS ghosts.
HA. Thanks Joe. Check out Night Birds because they are one of the best bands.