Q&A With The Cringe’s John Cusimano

The Cringe’s John Cusimano talked to Pollstar about the recording process for the band’s last few albums and how he balances his time in the studio and on the road with his role as CEO for Watch Entertainment, which runs the licensing and merchandise for his wife, Rachael Ray.

The very first version of the band began when he was in high school as a “really garage-y sounding” group that Cusimano explains “was so bad that we called it The Cringe.” Although his musical chops improved, he held onto the catchy name for the current incarnation of The Cringe.

With Cusimano on vocals, guitar and keyboard, the New York City-based alternative rock group includes guitarist James “Roto” Rotondi (whose resume includes Air and Mr. Bungle), drummer Shawn Pelton (who has worked with Bruce Springsteen and as a member of the “Saturday Night Live” band) and bassist Jonny Matais (ex-member of Crash Moderns).

Touring in support of its fourth album, 2012’s Hiding In Plain Sight, The Cringe kicked off a fall excursion this month supporting Trapt. The guys also have gigs lined up with Sponge and Cowboy Mouth.

Cusimano chatted about getting Instagram tips from Green Day’s Mike Dirnt, the pros and cons of analog vs. digital, and missing his wife’s cooking while he’s on tour. 

Photo: John Davisson
Rachael Ray Feedback, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, SXSW, Austin, TX

I was looking through your Facebook page and saw you posted some pretty incredible photos from your vacation in Italy. Are you pretty active as far as keeping in touch with fans through Instagram and other social media accounts?  

I’m not as active as my publicist would want me to be but I really try to be. A friend of mine, Mike Dirnt from Green Day, he’s really active. He also happens to be in like the biggest band on the planet. But he’s really active in social media and he’s kind of guiding me through what to do, how to tag people and [use] hashtags. It was really helpful.

I saw that you hashtagged one of your photos “anniversary” – so, happy anniversary.

Thank you.

You’re welcome. So, now that you had a chance to relax in Italy, are you ready to hit the stage again?

I am always ready to hit the stage. You could wake me up out of a dead sleep and I would just grab the guitar and start singing.

Our anniversary – my wife and I were married in Tuscany in a little castle type of thing near a town called Montalcino, which is where they make Brunello wine, which [our] favorite wine. So we got married there and then every year we go back and bring along 70 of our closest friends and we have a ridiculously fun long weekend. … There’s a lot of musicians there [so] we have a little impromptu jam that usually goes on for two-and-a-half hours.

Photo: Leslie Van Stelten
James “Roto” Rotondi, John Cusimano, Jonny Matias, Shawn Pelton

Did you bring any of your bandmates with you?

They all came with me! I keep the band well fed … an army marches on its stomach and all that.

You’re supporting your 2012 album, Hiding In Plain Sight. Do you have any favorite tracks to perform live?

I really like doing the first track on the album, which a lot of times we’ll open up with, called “Rushing Through The World.” It’s one of our heavier tracks and when we play this song it’s sort of like we come out swinging. And the idea is, especially live, we kind of want to melt a lot of faces. So that one is a lot of fun to play. There’s another track that we’ve been playing for a while called “In God We Trust,” which is off an earlier album called Tipping Point. [It’s] also a blast to play live.

[As] a support act we don’t have an entire evening to go deep into our catalog. We try to stick to the numbers … that can sort of, we hope, instantly resonate with the crowd and are energetic.

And I was checking out your bio and it said your previous album, 2010’s Play Thing, was “the result of a painstaking writing process and a rigorous recording ethic.” How did the writing and recording process compare on the new LP?

It was probably even more rigorous! [laughs] This is our fourth album and each album becomes more and more sort of a democratic process. Our first album, Scratch The Surface, was basically a John Cusimano solo album with a bunch of musicians that played on it. I kind of made all the decisions, wrote every word, every lyric, called all the shots. The second album had a little more input; we started playing with our current guitarist, Roto – but again, it was mostly me calling the shots. Then starting with Play Thing, we really started to work on lyrics together extensively and people would bring their own little parts and sections to songs. We’d sort of cobble together a bridge that someone wrote with a verse and lyrics that I wrote, and a chorus that someone else wrote. And that was even more extensive on this album. … You have more cooks in the kitchen so there’s a lot more discussion. … People don’t like the way a certain drum sounds or [how] certain bass part is played … This is just part of the process [and] at the end of the process you want to have a good product. I think [Hiding In Plain Sight] ended up becoming our best one yet.

Your bio also mentioned that Play Thing’s recording process featured “a creative collision of analog purists and digital renegades.” Which camp do you side with?

I’m more of an analog guy. Our second album, Tipping Point, is completely analog. We recorded it at a studio in New York called Avatar in their big, beautiful room “A.” We recorded everything to tape. We didn’t have any digital gear even. We used all vintage guitars, vintage gear, analog equipment. We mixed it from tape onto tape and then we mastered it from tape onto vinyl. We also did a CD and digital release but if you buy the vinyl version of Tipping Point you’re going to get pure analog recording – there’s not one digital note on that whole thing. And I really love the analog process. Digital is certainly much more convenient and it can be faster. It can also be slower because it doesn’t force you to make choices the way analog does. When you’re tracking to analog, if you make a mistake, you wanna change it, you’re changing it permanently. It’s not like digitally, you can save all your takes, save all your choices and go back and mix and match, replace and edit, pretty easily and quickly. It’s not that simple in analog so you really have to have everything sort of ironed out and make these important decisions beforehand. I think that kind of forces you to be a better band in a lot of ways. It actually streamlines the recording process.

Plus, I just love the sound of analog. Some people argue that analog is the better sound; some people argue that digital sounds better. To my ears, it’s kind of what I grew up with [and] has more of a warm, resonate sound to me. Especially when you’re playing real instruments in a room – four guys: guitar, keyboard, bass, drums – it seems more honest to me if you do it on tape.

Photo: Leslie Van Stelten
Jonny Matias, John Cusimano, Shawn Pelton, James “Roto” Rotondi

As for Hiding In Plain Sight – how was that one recorded?
That was recorded pretty much completely digitally. I built a home studio in my house in upstate New York, above the garage and it’s a digital studio. It’s got a very nice sounding counsel, designed by Malcolm Toft, but I don’t have any tape machine in there, that’s a little bit beyond my engineering capabilities whereas Pro Tools is pretty easy and quick. So we recorded the basic tracks above my garage on Pro Tools and then we did some overdubs in New York at Avatar. … Now I’m sort of going against what I said earlier, but digital recording has come a long way, even in the last five years. It does sound really, really good and pretty close to analog now. I was so excited about recording the album above my garage that I was willing to forgo the analog component but it’s definitely something I’m going to revisit in a big way in the future.

The Cringe has put out an album about every two to three years or so. Are you guys thinking about starting work on your next album any time soon?

It’s funny you said that. We were just in the lobby, checking in and we were talking about that – it’s time to start working on new material. Between all of us we have enough material for a new album but now it’s a matter of going through the process where you sort of cut and paste different things together, decide what’s good, rewrite lyrics, rewrite hooks. … It’s hard to do sometimes when you’re on the road because we’re so focused on the live performance but for sure when we get back we’re going to start honing in on that. I would like to have something out in 2014.

Earlier on you mentioned that the band’s first release was more like your solo project with studio musicians. How did The Cringe form and how long have you been working with the current lineup?

The current lineup has been together for about six years. Originally The Cringe was sort of this band name that I’ve had around since high school even. My friend Eric and I had this pretty crappy sort of post-punk, kind of funny, quirky, loud, really garage-y sounding band – and it was so bad that we called it The Cringe. I just kind of kept the name.

The first two albums had a different lineup. Even Play Thing had a different bass player, our friend Matt. And I met Roto, our current guitarist, through Shawn, our current drummer. He just knew him from the New York music scene. We just hit it off and we work well together, kind of agreed on a lot of the same stuff and liked the same music. [We] had some differences too, but you know, good differences, that sort of added to the creative mix. And then Jonny, our current bass player, I met through our old bass player, who moved to California so he couldn’t be in the band anymore. He was friends with Jonny and introduced us. We were all pretty simpatico.

I was looking through past press that you have done and I read something that mentioned that you work with your wife on contracts and merchandise deals. Do you still do that?

Yeah, believe it or not. Thankfully in this day and age you don’t really need an office to work from. But I do have an office; we have a staff. Years ago I had started all of my wife’s licensing and merchandising line – pots and pans, cookware, pantry items in the supermarket, pet food. And that obviously grew to a pretty large business over the last several years so I have a very good staff that works with me on that. We’re lean and mean – there’s not too many of us. But basically we run all of the licensing and merchandising for my wife and it’s sort of Rachael Ray Central. And with cellphones and iPads and iPods it’s pretty easy to keep in touch and we have a lot of downtime with the band in between gigs.

How do you balance the licensing and merchandising commitments with your schedule with the band?

Well, I have a lot of balls in the air and I don’t sleep very much.

Like you mentioned, with cellphones and iPads and all that, I’m sure that helps out as far as not always having to be in the office.

Right, it certainly does. Although, when I’m not on the road [and] when I’m not in the studio, I am in the office quite a bit.

Photo: John Davisson
"Rachael Ray's Feedback," Stubb's Bar-B-Q, SXSW, Austin, TX

So, when you’re on the road do you miss your wife’s cooking?

I for sure miss my wife’s cooking. It’s hard to find a restaurant that is even close to her food, certainly not better. I just miss my wife and I miss my puppy. Well, technically she’s not a puppy anymore, but I miss Isaboo and Rachael very much. And I try, if it’s possible, [when] on the road [to] have a day off and hop back [home] quickly, depending on how far away I am, I like to do that so I’m not away from them for too long. But you know it’s just part of being busy. She has to go on a book tour once a year and if she’s traveling for a TV shoot I will try to arrange tours around where she’s going to be, to the extent that we can. In fact, she was shooting in L.A. at the end of July [and] we happened to have a gig out there at the House Of Blues. … I got to spend a couple nights with her and she got to come to the gig with her whole crew and Guy Fieri was there, they were shooting a show together. When things like that happen, that’s really fun.

You have dates booked through November. What’s next after that?

I don’t know the exact dates, they haven’t been nailed down yet, but I believe there’s a few more Sponge dates coming up in December. And then once we start getting close to the holidays we’re probably going to take some time off and do the whole holiday, festive, fun thing with the family.

We’re really excited [about the fall tour]. We’re playing some cool markets. We love getting out into the country and meeting new people and we’re looking forward to hanging out with Trapt and Sponge and Cowboy Mouth. 

Photo: John Davisson
SXSW, Rachael Ray's Feedback Festival, Stubb's Bar-B-Q, Austin, TX

Upcoming dates for The Cringe:

Oct. 9 – Johnson City, Tenn., Capone’s     
Oct. 11 – Jacksonville, N.C., Hooligans Music Hall        
Oct. 13 – Amityville, N.Y., Revolution         
Nov. 1 – Solana Beach, Calif., Belly Up Tavern     
Nov. 2 – West Hollywood, Calif., The Roxy Theatre     
Nov.6 – San Francisco, Calif., The Independent     
Nov. 7 – Portland, Ore., Doug Fir Lounge     
Nov. 8 – Seattle, Wash., Tractor Tavern     
Nov. 9 – Seattle, Wash., Tractor Tavern

For more information visit TheCringe.com and check out the band’s Facebook page, Twitter account and Instagram.