Philly’s Mighty Joe Castro & The Gravamen Release Debut Album “Come On Angels”
2020 feels like a new era in America in so many ways, but in these challenging and confusing times there is comfort in seeking familiarity. That’s where Mighty Joe Castro & The Gravamen’s debut full length album Come On Angels enters. The rockabilly album, which was released on July 31st, is a pastiche of the 1950s/1960s Sun Records era of rock n’ roll such as Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Elvis — combined with elements of punk and shoegaze with a lyrical influence of Morrissey, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan. It’s classic Americana through a post-postmodern lens.
Based out of Philadelphia, PA, Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen features accomplished collage artist and musician Joe Castro, bassist H00V3r, drummer Dallas, and lead guitarist Michael Stingle.
There is a lot to love here in Come On Angels, from the slightly sinister album starter “There Are No Secrets Here,” to the Beach Boys-esque doowop howl in “Whispering Hell,” the folk narrative in “June (90 Degrees)” and the sweet and sensitive guitar work of “Better Hold Tight.”
Read below to hear frontman Joe Castro’s thoughts about live stream performances, making music videos from home, and the new album.
Philadelphia Globe: What is it about the early rock n’ roll/rockabilly musicians that attracted you to the music? Why do you think this music stays relevant today?
Joe Castro: That sound and style – it’s honest and deceptively simple (yet hard to do well). It’s not overtly intellectual but there’s something deeper hidden in there, something mysterious. Maybe that stems from it’s gospel roots (you can hear it in Sister Rosseta Tharpe’s music for sure). It’s the sound of rebellion with the rhythm of working people. That blues boogie with a little country twang added, some doo-wop harmonies sprinkled with a little hellfire and brimstone gospel. And those early records were recorded live in the studio, mistakes and all with no overdubs, often by people who were not professionals. It’s completely imperfect, which is what makes it human.
But at the end of the day, rock-n-roll hits you in the heart and then smacks you on the hips. And that’s why it’s still relevant.
PG: I love the video for “There Are No Secrets Here.” How did you come across those movies [Carnival of Souls and Dementia] for inspiration?
JC: Thank you! I was already a big fan of Carnival of Souls – just a great film and the cinematography is striking. I started researching film noir movies from the ’50s and I came across Dementia and felt it really captured the vibe of the track. I love the way it’s shot – that heavily contrasted black and white night footage is just so raw. I’m also a visual artist, working mainly in collaging, so the idea of combining footage from a few different sources to create something new was very familiar to me. Figuring out how to film myself alone at home and match up my iPhone footage with those films was a fun challenge for sure.
PG: You also shot a music video for “Cold and Bitter Tears.” How was that process considering each band member filmed separately?
JC: Creating three music videos in the middle of a global pandemic presented some unique challenges for sure. Our practice space was shut down and I hadn’t seen those guys in months. So, taking inspiration from the loneliness in Ted Hawkins’ lyric, I decided that instead of filming the band all together in one spot, I’d shoot them separately in their own space, playing along to the song alone and doing dishes. I wanted everyone’s individual personalities to shine through. It was also easier to film them one at a time – I could wear a mask and still keep a 6 foot distance. At the end of the day, we’re just playing the hand we’ve been dealt.
PG: How was the recording process for the new album? Did you start before the pandemic, and how did COVID affect the process, if at all?
JC: We started recording at Miner Street the last weekend in December – and left the building in early March with the final mixes, in hand, two days before the quarantine hit. Recording was a blast though – stress free. Just an overall positive vibe. For the most part, everything was recorded live (except for vocals) with minimal overdubs and edits. Just a live band in a room. We approached things differently with this album, and spread the recording process over five weekend sessions where we’d go in and record/mix two full songs – start to finish – over the two days. To only focus on two songs at a time was really freeing. It prevented us from over-analyzing the process and second guessing our instincts. Full credit for the idea goes to Brian McTear [producer of the album and has also worked with Sharon Van Etten, Dr Dog, Dead Milkmen and more]. He really helped us to stay out of our own way.
But you could definitely feel the virus coming, lurking off in the shadows. Early on, it just came up in novel conversation. But as the weeks passed, you could feel the mood change. Bottles of hand sanitizer started showing up and any time someone sneezed, they’d get a sideways glance. Before long, everyone was religiously washing hands and packing their own lunches. But somehow the timing worked out for us. We got really lucky.
Brian mentioned to me that we were the last band to finish an album at Miner Street before the pandemic hit – that really bums me out. I hope they can get the studio up and running again safely soon.
PG: What were the main inspirations behind this album?
JC: We’re taking a beat up ‘57 Chevy – a real beauty of a car – but we’re gonna put an electric engine in it, add some air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, maybe a better sound system too. Keep the aesthetic beauty and style of the original but update the guts so it’s relevant to modern life. That’s basically what we’re trying to do.
I’ll amend this by admitting that I have next to no knowledge regarding automobile mechanics.
PG: Do you have any upcoming plans for live performances, whether it’s a virtual live stream or in-person?
JC: I filmed a short acoustic solo thing at my house for Magnet Magazine’s IG TV recently. That should be out sometime soon. Other than that, we’re just holding firm at the moment. With the pandemic, everything is still up in the air and I don’t know if we’ll play a show together as a band again until 2021. Different members and their families have high risk factors that we need to take seriously.
I have mixed feelings about live streams – they always feel sterile – which makes sense, given the circumstances. But the absence of the audience really drives home the important part they play in a live performance. We need each other – energy needs to be exchanged. There has to be a sense of community there. So until we can do that safely, I’m hesitant to perform at all. I’ve played more than my fair share of empty rooms – I’m not sure I’m ready to rush back into that just because it’s presented to me.
So we’re gonna wait and see. Fingers crossed for the vaccine and moving things back to normal.
PG: What are some of the biggest goals for the band once this pandemic is over?
JC: To play as many shows as possible in as many different locations as we can get to. Our passports are all valid and there’s gas in the van. Today your love, tomorrow the world.