It is hard to believe that Mary Ramsey has now fronted 10,000 Maniacs longer than storied, original frontwoman Natalie Merchant.

Ramsey now has been at the lead for 18 years for the Jamestown. Merchant’s time clocked in at 12 years.

"We keep going, part of it is our sense of living in the moment if it is working,” Ramsey recently said. “I think there is that element to being a musician or artist; you take all the elements; we are writing new music, we are playing pretty well, and the most important thing is if the audience is there that wants to hear it. If all of those things are in place, then it keeps the machine moving. It is like a garden. You have to have the right kind of soil to grow things.”

10,000 Maniacs play the Lamp Theater in Irwin on November 25.


10,000 Maniacs sprouted to life in September 1981. In the intervening years, the band has seen tremendous triumphs and staggering setbacks.

The band has seen its share of lineup changes over the 36 years. The most contentious being the 1993 departure of Merchant.

The Maniacs (named after the 1964 Herschell Gordon Lewis schlock fest “Two Thousand Maniacs!”) had just reached the high-water mark of a wave that started to roll with the band’s 1987 release of “In My Tribe.”

“Our Time in Eden” connected immediately with audiences upon its release in 1992. It was a rebound after 1989’s commercially disappointing, yet critically lauded “Blind Man’s Zoo.”

The album’s first single “These Are Days” landed at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. A first for the band. They played Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration Ball in January 1993. In April, they were the first band to make a second appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged.”

In August, Merchant made public what the band had known since the preproduction of “Our Time in Eden,” she wanted out to make art without committee.

That was a move that would have crippled a lesser band, but Merchant was always a wildcard dating back to the band’s early days of being surprised she showed up for the next gig.

In late 93/early 94, original members Drew Dennis (keyboard), Rob Buck (guitar), Steve Gustafson (bass) and drummer Jerome Augustyniak (who joined in 1983), reconvened and asked Ramsey and founding member John Lombardo to join.

Lombardo left the band in 1981, but he and Ramsey toured as a folk duo aptly titled John and Mary, who opened for many a Maniacs show. Ramsey was a natural choice as she played viola on “Our Time in Eden” along with contributing backing vocals. She is also featured on the band’s “Unplugged” performance, most notably “Trouble Me.”

The Ramsey-fronted Maniacs released “Love Among the Ruins” in 1997. It was the band’s sole release on Geffen Records, who picked the band up after Merchant and then-label Elektra parted ways with the band together.

Bar/None Records would release 1999’s “The Earth Pressed Flat.” It would be the band’s last album with Buck. On December 19, 2000, Buck died of liver failure at the age of 42.

The band faced another overwhelming loss, going on hiatus until 2002, playing only a benefit show in 2001.

In 2002, Drew, Gustafson, and Augustyniak decided to solider on in a different direction. They recruited a new lead singer in Oskar Saville. Lombardo, upon finding out about the new direction, left the band.

Over the next five years, the band toured with Saville, as Ramsey occasionally played viola with the band. In 2007, Saville left, and Ramsey resumed her spot in the lead.

The line up of Ramsey, Drew, Gustafson, Augustyniak and Jeff Erickson (Buck’s former guitar tech) have remained constant over the last 10 years.

The band released its first album of original material “Music from the Motion Picture” in 2013, 14 years after “The Earth Pressed Flat.”

In 2015, an album of British Isle covers was released. Last year saw the band release its second live album. “Playing Favorites” was the first plugged in and with Ramsey on lead. It also brought Lombardo back into the fold.

The Swerve Magazine recently spoke with Ramsey about the band’s current tour in support of “Playing Favorites” and much more than this.

The Swerve Magazine: How has the tour been going?

Mary Ramsey: It has been going very well. All the shows have pretty much been sold out, and that is always a good sign. It has been very positive; we are quite encouraged.

(I remember) I was in one of the worst snow storms in Pittsburgh. John Lombardo and I were doing a John and Mary show. We were staying with Jerome Augustyniak, who used to live there. It was one of the worst snowstorms. We couldn’t go out anywhere because it was icy and horrible.

I recall it clearly because I remember telling Jerry that we didn’t have food or anything in the house. Let’s get out. So we took a walk to the grocery store. We had to walk. Then we had to walk to a beer distributor because you could not get beer in the grocery store. All they had was a case. We were going through snow drifts carrying all of this stuff. It was quite the workout.

SM: That is Pittsburgh, either a blizzard or 70 degrees all winter, there are no in-betweens. On the topic of in-betweens, are you seeing a lot of old fans or are there newer fans at the shows or something in-between?

MR: It is a combination. There are certainly the old fans that followed us for years, and it is wonderful to see them at shows. It is like a family member. We have seen them for 20 or 30 years. We’ve all changed, or not too much. Their kids and their grandkids show up. I think it is the timing. I think people want to come out and hear the music for nostalgia reasons, but because they enjoy the music. It gets them out of the house to meet friends. It is having a night out. I think that, maybe, the older generation of people pick and choose when they are going to go out more than going out every night. They work and have their day job and get sleep or… there are practical things.

Even the economics of it, when a family is involved things get more expensive than they were years ago.

SM: What made now the right time to release the band’s live album?

MR: We just had such a good show. We did a show at the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts in Jamestown, where a lot of Maniacs shows have gone on over the years with Natalie, with me. We decided to record it, and it sounded great. It felt like the time. We have been working on having a yearly release if we can. (It can be) new or we did an album of British Isle songs “Twice Told Tales” a couple of years ago. It is always on our list of things to do. It helps us keep perspective of ourselves.

SM: Do you find that the songs have different drawing powers than they did even 10 years ago?

MR: Channeling these lyrics, the ones I had not written, you become so connected with by just speaking them, by singing them, they become something of a point of study. It is all about your perspective. You can hear a song one day, and it doesn’t mean anything to you. The another day, for some reason, it hits you.

Even “More Than This,” the hit I had with the Maniacs, to have something that is so poetic and effortless be put into a place where it is reflective. To think about not being touched by all of this other negative stuff.

SM: Since you bought up “More Than This,” I was always curious as to how that was determined to be the band’s first single with you on vocals?

MR: I was always a big fan of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry. At the time, in 1997, we were recording “Love Among the Ruins.” We were writing our tunes. The record label at the time said, “You guys in the past have done well taking a song and covering it, like with ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Because the Night.’ Why don’t you put on a cover?”

We were at rehearsal, and I said about always liking ‘More Than This.’ We played through it once or twice, and it just fell into place. I put some moody viola stuff on there. The other day I was in the car, and I heard Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This.” It is really different what I did at the end of the song; it is improvisational. It was something that came out of nowhere.

We recorded it, and all fell into place.

SM: Speaking of recording, is the band working on any new material?

MR: We have songs. We are going to be getting together probably sometime in December and January to work through the songs that we have to see which ones want to become songs. We get together, and everyone brings in their own parts. Then we start to play them together.

SM:
So we can expect new music from 10,000 Maniacs soon?

MR: When we get the wheels going, I think mid-next year.
 

Rob Buck and Natalie Merchant