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Name: Adam Bernard
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The Slambovian Circus of Dreams Finds The Right Connection
Thursday, June 12, 2014

Twenty five years ago the world witnessed the massacre at Tiananmen Square in China. Shortly after those events, New York folk-rock foursome The Slambovian Circus of Dreams hit the stage in Shanghai, and began the healing process by connecting with the people.

Connecting with people has been a theme of the band’s since day one, as they believe the world’s problems could be solved if everyone looked at what they have in common, rather than focusing on their differences.

Having long avoided the industry in favor of the DIY lifestyle, The Slambovian Circus of Dreams, which is made up of Joziah Longo, Tink Lloyd, Sharkey McEwen, and Eric Puente, recently dipped their toe in those industry waters, signing a deal with Sony’s RED Distribution. The first project the band released through the deal was A Box of Everything, which came out earlier this year. Tink describes the album as a collection of “greatest hits you never heard,” adding that it also includes three new songs, and is meant to pave the way for the band’s next official release.

With a full slate of shows booked through the summer, The Slambovian Circus of Dreams is currently a circus of the traveling variety. In-between dates, I caught up with Slambovian frontman Joziah Longo to find out more about the band’s music, which they define as Americana psychedelica, and their unique goals. Longo also discussed the shows in Shanghai that took place 25 years ago, and how the band diffused numerous potentially volatile situations while performing there.

Adam Bernard: Your music involves some really unique instruments. Not a lot of bands have a slide mandolin, and an accordion. Did you specifically seek out people who played these, or did you have people in your life who played them, and basically said, “Well, here’s what we play, let’s make it work?”

Joziah Longo: It’s got a lot to do with Tink. We were playing on traditional instruments, and doing that whole scene, and we had a lot of label people interested in us, and we just pulled ourselves out of it all. We weren’t so interested in having a traditional label, and stuff like that, at that time, so we just vanished from it all.

We stopped playing for several months. Tink and I went back to school. We went to community college to get the tools we needed to do everything on our own, then we started playing coffee houses and open mics, which meant we started using acoustic guitars, and smaller drum kits. Then Tink, just to fill in for stuff we weren’t doing with the bigger electric stuff, she started picking up accordions, and cellos. She’d never played cello (before). She picked up a theremin. She started making the arsenal of odd instruments, and we started doing the folk circuit.

From coffee houses and cafes we started getting hired for folk festivals because we were playing acoustic instruments, so Sharkey (McEwen) started playing mandolin. It was very organic, and we started getting involved in the whole folk scene that way.

Adam Bernard: You pre-dated the recent folk explosion by at least a handful of years.

Joziah Longo: Yeah, we did, and all those instruments that a lot of people are using right now in the hip young bands, we were doing that when people used to laugh at us for using those instruments. We’d get into events, and the event managers, they thought we were a joke until we played. It was a very interesting experience for us, to be so chased by people, and to be this really outsider, weirdo band that everybody thought was this quirky thing. The folk realm was a bit conservative for us when we entered. They just thought we were this crazy theatrical thing, which we weren’t, we were just sincere, and did what we did, but we were a little ahead of the curve, ten years ahead of the curve, maybe, or something like that.

Adam Bernard: In what ways has the rebirth in popularity of the genre affected the band?

Joziah Longo: Well, it affects us in a way that people say they hear bands that sound like us. I’m sure those bands didn’t hear us because we weren’t played anywhere. People think they hear us on the radio, and it’s some new young band that kinda took the instrumentation that we have and started using it. Even The Lumineers, or Mumford & Sons, or any of those bands, that’s the kind of stripped down stuff that we were doing when it was laughable for a lot of people, and too rock-y for the folk realm, but the folk realm, honestly, they embraced us.

It was a funny way to get in, and now we do major folk festivals. We’re on stage headlining the things, and playing the dance tents on Friday. Now we’ve got people chasing us around to try to help us do what we should do, which is more like a Pink Floyd meets The Band and Cirque de Soleil. That’s the kind of show we’d like to do – big, immersive, tripping without acid, Pink Floyd, Americana shows. Americana psychedelica, or something like that.

Adam Bernard: On your Facebook page you list “the human condition” under your band’s interests. What about the human condition fascinates you, and how do you feel that’s reflected in your music?

Joziah Longo: I think we deal with a lot of psychological issues with the band. A lot of the music is dealing with that stuff, like darker realms that a lot of people get trapped in. We have a propensity to get lost in those realms, and music has always solved that for us. On an individual, personal, level, our music deals with a lot of darker issues that people might wrestle with, and (it) tries to find a way to solve them. In other words, we go to dark places, but there’s a lot of hope in it, because we were able to kinda fight our way through a lot of difficult situations, and solve a lot of things on our own.

On a bigger level, we’re very concerned about the political situation in the world, and I don’t mean left or right, I’m talking about how there are some crazy world events that are going on right now that harken back to a darker time, almost like Cold War times, and I think all of that can be solved if there’s a real strong cultural exchange between the East and West, and we find correlative points that we love in each other’s culture.

In cultural events people can realize how much they are alike, how much their hearts want the same things, how much their minds dream of the same things. I think all the problems we’ve had through history are because people see the differences in each other, and not the common bases, and culture is really a powerful tool to solve that.

Of course the industry has always tried to divide it into different genres, and this is against this, and that’s not like this. To me, all that stuff does the separation, and you can erase that by spending an evening together doing music together, or sharing it.

I think culture is our greatest weapon to solve the problems in the world, and create those correlative bases. We were the first American band to get into China. What we experienced when we were there was a lot of division. We had armed soldiers at a show. It was right after Tiananmen Square that we played over there.

Adam Bernard: I was going to ask about you that. The massacre at Tiananmen Square happened 25 years ago this past week. Having seen China during that time, do you ever look at situations now and say, “This could end really badly?”

Joziah Longo: Yeah, it could go right back to that. America, in a way ... I should say the government America, not the people, they’ve been a little naive as to what's going on.

When we started out we got in (to China) and we made changes happen. Before Shanghai started to change we were in there making changes happen at shows. Soldiers tried to drag people out for head-bangining in the front, and we said, “Yo, let ‘em go!” We put ourselves in dangerous circumstances, and the soldiers let them go. We went up to those soldiers afterwards, and befriended them, and they were taking pictures with us.

Things can be solved when people get in a room and create art and music together. They can realize we are one, it’s one family. All the races, and science has even proved it, we come from a common mother, it’s in Africa somewhere, that whole Lucy thing, and they found someone else even further back. All branches of DNA trace back to these people, so all the different races, it’s just nonsense, we are really one family. Ideologies separate us, and genres separate us, but I think we’ve gotta find that common base.

On a small level, on a personal level, there are psychological things, and the darkness can be solved by interaction with people. People get very isolated, and that’s what causes a lot of problems, even suicide. Interaction is the thing that can really solve the darkness, and solve the political problems. Forget about left and right, it’s all bullshit, none of it works. Interaction, and realizing we’re one people, and everybody’s dumb in their own way, and everybody’s smart in their own way, and we all need each other. If people find that, we can solve all problems.

That’s behind a lot of our music. It’s insinuated in things, and by getting out and playing it proves itself. We’ve played for people who love all kinds of genres, and they can get it. Every realm of music is in our stuff. It jumps all over the place.

Adam Bernard: Rewind a bit here. You were talking about the connectivity of music, and of cultural exchange, and you mentioned befriending the armed guards in China. How did that happen? What was that situation like when you approached armed guards whose language you didn’t speak?

Joziah Longo: When we did the first show in Shanghai, the only two people that we saw in China at that particular time who had long hair, we were sort of a long haired band at the time, came up to head-bang. There were armed guards all around that show, and they were very nervous about what we would do, if we would cause some problem. The armed guards grabbed these guys, these two guys who came up to head-bang. Everybody else was sitting in their seats. Families came. It was a really unusual crowd, but these two guys were dragged out on their heels, and me on stage, I’m not always in control of what I do, or say. All of a sudden I found myself in a very dangerous situation. I said, “Yo! Let ‘em go!” We had a girl on stage who was translating whatever we said in-between songs, and she said, very meekly, what it is that I said. We could have been shot, or dragged away to prison at that time, cuz I’m pointing at them, and screaming at them. I thought oh my God, what am I doing, but they let them go.

When they let them go the two guys came back up to head-bang, and everybody got out of their seat and came to the front of the stage, once (they saw) that was allowed. We were touching each other, and crying. It was a profound experience because they had never seen an American band play before. It made us feel like this is our family, man.

The way that the resolution happened was when we did the second show, I knew that a lot of those guys could be defensive. I grew up in a kinda tough neighborhood, I’m from South Philly, so I said, and this is another volatile, crazy, thing to do, I said, “When I saw these soldiers at the show I thought what is this? Then when I looked at their faces they reminded me of guys I grew up with in South Philadelphia.” A lot of times ghosts, meaning the spirit of it, will speak for me, but I never know what it is, and when it’s coming out I’m going oh my God, I’m digging a deeper hole here, but I said, “These guys remind me of guys that I grew up with, and I realize, you know what, we’re all the same, we’re all one.”

I said that at the second show, and after the second show all the soldiers came down and asked if they could take pictures with us. We took pictures with our arms around these guys, and them smiling. It was just incredible.

When we did our third show it was outside of Shanghai, and they wouldn’t let anybody on the floor. It was at a gymnasium where there were seats all the way around. We were wireless, so we went down into the middle of the floor and we were spinning around, and high fiving people. The soldiers were all around the periphery at the show. At the end of that show someone took their little daughter, maybe like four years old, or something like that, they held her by the arms, and they lowered her down to the floor and she ran all the way to the front of the stage, this big empty space, with a leis, like a flower leis, and she stood there holding it up, and I bent down and she put the leis around my neck. They trusted us that much by that point that they let this little girl run up on stage and put this leis around my neck. I picked her up. I had a daughter that age, and I just got choked up to tears, and I said, “I have a daughter this age who I miss because we’re over here, and this is like having my daughter with me.”

That kind of stuff happened, and the people just embraced us. It was an incredible experience. The communist party even liked us. Everybody was nervous, but in The People’s Worker, which was a main paper over there, they had never printed an English word in their lives, because any Western culture was against the revolution, the first English word they printed was Ancestors, they told us this, which was the name of the band at that particular time, and they printed it in English. So there were a lot of firsts with the band.

Adam Bernard: That’s absolutely amazing, and speaking of firsts, tell me about the distribution deal you just signed, through which you released your greatest hits collection, A Box of Everything.

Joziah Longo: Even though we’ve tried to be outsiders all the time, like always shied away from the industry, who wanted to court us, it’s a different world now. We’re hitting the reset button on everything we’re doing, because you can do everything by yourself, but we also wanted to try to do something with a little bit of a straighter thing, so we’re trying this distribution (deal) that was offered to us through Sony RED, just so we’re not prejudiced against anybody. We signed a deal with them to see what they’ll do with what we’re doing, because I’d really like to do that big, immersive, Pink Floyd, Cirque de Soleil, Americana show that we could take to China, and really win people’s hearts over with, and make sure that America and China don’t become enemies again.

People need to find each other as a family, and we need to make sure we won’t let artificial ideologies guide what we do anymore. We really need to take care of each other.

It’s not always so conducive to talk about that stuff behind our music, but our motivation is about that, it’s always been that. We avoided the industry because we didn’t want to be controlled by an industry that didn’t let us do what we wanted, but we also want to find a way to interact and work with them because we see the world is in a very dangerous place, and we just want to dismantle all that stuff, if possible.

We’re just a little tiny band, but you’ve gotta do your part, and we’ve seen what can be done. We’ve tasted that in so many incidences where we’ve been allowed to go into situations that other people haven’t gone into. (We know) how to diffuse problems, how to talk to people in a way to make them not be defensive, but realize we’re one, and we’re out for each other, we’re not enemies, we’re friends, we’re family. I think that’s the truth beneath everything. That’s an organic truth. It’s not some ideological bullshit. It’s closer to science than religion is, the fact that we are a family. That’s probably the highest religion, realizing that we are family.


Interview originally ran on Arena.com.

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