After moving to the city 10 years ago to attend the Manhattan School of Music for a graduate degree in composing, the multi-faceted musician began exploring the wide range music found throughout the boroughs, and soon started his own group.
With the help from his music school friends and through a citywide web of networking, the now 15-person group has already released their first EP and plan to hit the studio in 2015 for another.
Neesly, a Grammy-nominated musician, has played to sold-out concert venues and squeezed his band into small pubs since their inception.
I spoke with the lead singer and trumpet player last week to discuss the origins of his band and their plans for 2015.
Where did you come up with the name Jesus on the Mainline?
This old band of mine – we didn’t really quit or anything, we just kind of got other gigs – but I was looking to start a new band with some of the guys I was playing more with. But we were just rehearsing a little and writing down some tunes, but I realized I didn’t have a way of telling people what I was up to, because everyone was like hey are you in a band? But I didn’t really have a name for it, so I had to come up with something.
So I was sitting around doing some Soundcloud surfing – I try to take a day every two weeks just for inspiring purposes and check out what else is going on – but anyway this gospel tune Jesus on the Mainline came on. I didn’t search for it. It just kind of popped up a few times. It was kind of weird really.
I heard Aretha do it when she was like 18, then this Brooklyn band came on and it was diametrically opposite from Aretha’s version. But that really just stuck with me.
Is that kind of music something you are inspired by?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up as a classical violinist. I spent 15 to maybe 20 years of my life really focused on jazz and Afro-Cuban music. That rock-and-roll we do is really taken from those styles. When we go into a jam session, our music just lends itself to that. Just the nature of how many people playing the kind of tunes that we do, there is a lot of jamming because of that.
How did you get into that style of music?
Well, I’m from Wisconsin – in fact a few of us are: the bass player Dave Scalia, (guitarist and banjo player) Tomek Miernowski and Mel Flannery (lead vocals).
The Afro-Cuban stuff I do in the city here was stuff that I was turned on to in New York when I moved here about 10 years ago. But, I came here for school at the Manhattan School of Music, that’s how I met Mel Flannery and we started playing with this guy Bobby Sanabria, who directs the Afro-Cuban ensemble at the school. When I graduated I ended up playing in his professional band.
That music is also informed by a lot of rock-and-roll – it is easily applied to rock-and-roll, R&B, hip-hop and the whole nine yards. But I’ve been playing trumpet in Bobby’s band for a good seven or eight years now and I’ve been writing with them as well - that band has 21 guys. But, the percussion in Jesus on the Mainline is definitely influenced by Afro-Cuban rock-and-roll.
Is it difficult having a band as large as Jesus on the Mainline?
Yeah, unless we have a really large body of new music, we don’t actually rehearse because of that reason. The level of musicians that these guys are, it makes it really easy to just give them a scratch track of a tune of a song and we can pretty much just hit it at the gig without too much worries. It is trying to get everybody in the same room.
Are you writing all this sheet music yourself?
Yeah, a lot of the guys will read these sheets; especially the brass who will play printed parts. But I think everyone can memorize this stuff in a heartbeat. The actual notes aren’t that difficult. Being a composer, that’s what my graduate degree was in. I’ve always been interested for really nice looking parts, especially when you’re in college when you’re trying to get your music played by other bands, it’s best to have that stuff looking so readable so your music can come through.
Do you base all of your writing on trumpet?
I do all the singing, but then there are also three other singers. I play a little bit of trumpet at the shows; I also play a little bit of violin at the shows. I write some of the songs, our backup singer/guitarist/banjo player Tim Emmerick writes with me sometimes, sometimes he brings in a song he’s done on his own. Sometimes, maybe Mel brings in an idea for an arrangement, but generally I’ll put all the stuff down into the parts so we can just sit down and read it.
I think what we’re looking forward to in 2015 is being able to collaborate even more than we have up till now. We’re hoping to make a full-length record in the spring. Our last EP, if you collected all the hours from our last EP it would have been like eight hours. But it was really fast.
It was just our first EP, but I guess it’s enough songs to be considered an album, but we’re calling it an EP. I’m really proud of the music though because we worked out the music a lot so we could record it really fast, but I would hope sometime down the line we would have the opportunity to record a record a little slower and involve every single person in the band. There’s so much talent and creativity there, I just know if everyone was involved it would be something really special.
Is it difficult or easier to play with such a large band?
Yeah, we actually play on some really tiny stages - the tuba player might have to sit on the floor. But that is definitely a concern.
Networking-wise: from having so many people in the band, I get to go out and support them on their own gigs. Imagine the 15 or 16 of us, we’re all playing other stuff and everyone is doing their own thing, so there is a lot of networking that happens.
The drummer just got done doing a World tour with A Great Big World, and Tomek’s done national tours and it’s a blast going out to support them. We just get these fantastic opportunities. I really love going to see these guys play on bigger stages than Jesus on the Mainline. But, that’s kind of the paradigm of what I’m trying to do. It’s a band but I’m also hoping it’s a community of people that we all go out and support each other. I work to make that community as big as possible and eventually one of us is going to poke through. I don’t mean hit it big, but we can all do this for each other and who knows.
Now that you’re putting out your own music, are you giving it away or do you try to make money from it?
I would love to make a million dollars selling my music some day – at least in its recorded form – but given the kind of show we put on, that’s the real experience. We try to convey that as much as we can in our recorded stuff, but until we’re selling gold records, the record is really just a business card.
Can you make money on the road with a band that big?
You’ve got to pick your battles. There are gigs you can play, there are rooms even in New York that are wildly different than a venue, so you have to ask yourself if you want to play the venue and play to their terms, or do you want to play somewhere else where you can make a little more money?
Everybody has gigs where they get paid, and everybody gets paid on Jesus on the Mainline too, but we’re really all in it for a good time and for the community. I don’t think there is anyone here that plays in the band – or even subs in the band – that’s waiting for their bread at the end of the gig. Everybody likes to hang, grab some whiskey after the show and talk about what a fun time it was.
Check out Jesus on the Mainline on Fri., Feb. 6 at the Mercury Lounge, located at 217 E. Houston St.