SPRING HEELED JACK - RON RAGONA & MIKE PELLEGRINO
Published January 28, 2012
Albatross got a chance to sit down with Ron Ragona and Mike Pellegrino from Spring Heeled Jack, before a show during the Skalapalooza 2012 Tour. We started at the beginning, continued to now and even stepped a little bit into the future.
Ron: It basically started with me and Dave. We played a lot of parties…and this place called The Moon, in New Haven. After a few months I made a decision to move to Boston. At that point it was the very beginning of Spring Heeled Jack…everyone was kinda half-assing it and it wasn’t really that great.
Ron: It was a band but everyone was doing different things. I mean, the bass player and the trumpet player were dating and that was causing problems. Just stuff like that.
Mike: Bands that have personal issues?! I have no idea what you’re talking about (insert sarcasm.)
R: The first incarnation lasted a few months.
R: I was at a Special Beat show and I was hanging out outside and there were all scooters lined up and Ben (Saxaphone player of Skavoovie) came up to me and handed me a flyer. I was like, “So…you’re starting a band?” At that time I thought I was a better bass player then a guitar player so I asked them if they needed someone on bass. He said they did so I ended up playing bass for them.
You know, Skavoovie’s a total ‘old school’ ska band and we’d practice all the time. So Ben would come over and we’d listen to all old records. We’d learn all these songs and do that ‘whole thing.’ That lasted a few months and I decided I didn’t want to live in Boston anymore.
R: (Laughs) It was not a girl. That time it wasn’t. I was pretty young…I think like 19. I was living with two friends who were in college and I just, kinda, disappeared. I actually didn’t say bye to anyone, just left. I didn’t see the dood’s in Skavoovie till we all played New York City at the Oi! Skampilation. Spring Heeled Jack showed up and they (Skavoovie) were like, “What the f*ck! Ron! We never knew what happened to you!”
M: Wow…I did not know that…
R: Yeah. One day I just didn’t show up. I have no idea why I didn’t call them or say anything. I just didn’t think they would care. They didn’t need me.
R: When I got back I called Dave. At the time I wanted to play more ‘upbeat,’ ‘rock n’ roll ska’ then what Skavoovie was doing. Like the Bosstones or Fishbone, just blending stuff together. I love the traditional stuff, but I just wanted something with more energy. I mean I was 19. It’s way better for Skavoovie because they sound way better without me. (Laughs)
M: Yeah, they definitely got their own thing going.
R: They just started a Facebook page too. But I digress…I called Dave, who was a mutual acquaintance of Mike and myself, and I told him I wanted to start Spring Heeled Jack back up and I had some new ideas. I called Joe Bush, who was the original bass player, and asked him if he wanted to do it again.
At that time I had problems singing and playing guitar at the same time and I thought maybe we should get a singer. Dave was like, “Yeah, I know this guy Mike.” It was funny because Mike came into practice this one time dropping off something for Dave and he looked like Bon Jovi. I was like, “Who’s this Bon Jovi looking-guy,” and Mike was like, “Who’s this asshole!?”
M: Yeah, Ron looked like he was 12 too. He had his white shirt, a tie and a hat on and I was like “Who’s this guy!?”
M: …and that was Day 1
R: Mike came in and Dave played you a practice tape prior I guess?
M: Dave had played me the original ‘demo’ or some live stuff. Maybe it was at The Moon. Dave and I been in bands together and I had know him since we were 8…so we knew each other. We had played everything from metal to…just everything. I couldn’t really compare it to anything and it got me real pumped. It had this really good energy and feeling to it.
I would listen to it and just starting humming stuff and coming up with stuff and I was like, “This is f*ckin’ awesome. I need to be a part of this.” Before that I had only been in ‘high-school’ type of stuff. I mean we were all like 19 years old so weren’t out of high school that long. I always knew it was what I wanted to do so at that point it was just finding the right dood’s to do it with.
So that first day, I walked in and told them I had a bunch of idea’s and everyone was like, “Just put in what you feel. Let’s see what happens.”
M: Everything from classic rock and metal to modern day rock, metal…really anything that got me excited to play and jump around. The Beatles to Metallica. We all had the same roots of good Soul music.
R: I mean we both sang, but yes…
M: Right from day one we were trading off stuff. Then I’d play guitar on one song while Ronnie would sing…and vice versa. The switching vocals thing actually helped out in a lot of ways when it came to interviews, and the mentality.
R: At different times, on tour, we’d both be having a bad day and who would argue who would sing first. “You start it off.” “No way man, you start it off!” “I don’t wanna start it first!” We would start a song, you’d ‘pop’ the guitar off and the other would hop right in. I’d give you voice a break…I don’t care how in shape you are, jumping around is rough.
M: That was always a fun part of it. A lot of bands weren’t doing that type of thing at that time. Horns were strong, we were switching off the vocals. It all felt good, even from day one.
R: When I came back and I called Dave I said “The first thing I need to find is a good trombone player!” Dave said he knew a guy in his jazz band. Me, Mike and Dave went to this Jazz Ensemble. Chris Rhodes comes out (Trombone…obviously) in his suit and is playing ‘Chameleon’ by Herbie Handcock. (starts ‘tooting’.) After two minutes, we were like “We need him to play.” He came down to practice and we would sing horn lines and he’d just pick it up.
M: He was so good.
R: Pat was a pretty straight laced guy. He had a path that he wanted to go on and it wasn’t the path we were on. He went on to do what he’s doing now. He’s a business guy.
M: We used to play in his other band, Smackhead. When he was at a training college in Hartford. We used to play with them all the time. He definitely had a pre-destined thing going on.
M: Oh, totally.
R: Actually, prior to Pat it was Chris on Trumpet and he left…
M: He left for a similar reason. Just had a busy ‘work thing.‘ He was sacrificing and leaving the band was really the best move for him.
R: We were playing Thursday through Sunday, every week…
M: Even right from the start we were playing like that. We were really pushing it and really going for it.
R: …and for someone who’s looking at it a little more passively, it’s totally understandable.
M: That record was definitely a learning experience for all of us.
R: We had never been in a studio at that point.
M: You know, you go look up hourly rates and stuff like that…and we really had no idea what we were looking at. We thought studios looked awesome and just didn’t have a clue.
Then I played some of the mixes to my sisters boyfriend (at the time) and he wasn’t really…feeling it. He suggested we get his friend to come in and do some of the mixing.
R: We had recorded the whole thing at that point.
M: We had sh*t amps. The sound was mediocre. Everything was pretty mediocre. I thought it came out pretty good considering all the mediocracy. ‘The friend’ said he wanted to steer us to come mix at this other place, Joetown in Longford, Connecticut. It was a totally weird ‘wake up,’ but my sisters boyfriend had come down to the studio with us one time and was walking around the studio. He just kept saying, “Oh…this is not good….this ain’t good. This isn’t even set up right. These speakers aren’t even hooked up properly.” We were shell-shocked. I called him later and he was like, “You have got to get out of that place. Just come down to my buddies studio.” We went to a studio in this guys house…I think his dad had a chiropractic business…it was like a three floor house. He had all his stuff stacked up with just really good equipment.
R: The devil taking a sh*t…
M: There was a big velvet devil taking a crap on the toilet. We were like, “It’s kinda cool here!” He started tweaking the mix and it just started sounding better and better. He got to a point where he said “This is as good as I can get you.” Apparently the other guys wasn’t even recording us correctly. The big line at the other place was “We’ll fix it in the mix!” This guy was like, “That’s so not true. You get it right in the recording and the mix is just for placing everything correctly.”
R: Ahhh…”The fix is in the mix!” That was the big thing. Let me write that down! (laughs)
M: Joetown really saved that recording and it really sounded a lot better. From then on out we did all our demos there. The demo tapes even kicked the crap outta the sound of ‘Static World View.’
R: It was total fun. We were just kinda like a total party band. There weren’t a lot of ska band playing at that time. There was hardcore, and to be honest that’s one of the reasons I wanted to start a ska band. No one does it. The New York Citizens used to come through and they used to have the greatest shows…
M: The were great right from the start…
R: I was like, “I wanna be in a fun party band…and have fun.”
R: Moon and Bucket totally helped us out.
M: They totally got us from playing in the Tri-State area to putting the album out and playing a lot more. It started when we put the song ‘Addicted’ out on Skarmageddon.
M: Yes, that was the original recording and we redid it. So after Skarmageddon came out Bucket came back to us and said, “That’s one of our favorite songs on the comp, it’s doing real well and we’re getting a lot of positive responses from it.”
R: …and we were slowly building more shows and more people coming out to the shows. We were building a ‘following’ and they reached out their hand to us.
M: They took us out on our first national tour!
R: At that point we were going to put out the record ourselves and when we were offered a place at Moon Records we got pumped because we thought we were going to be able to record it again. They were like, “Ummm..nope. We wanna put it out ‘as is.’”
M: Which is fine, but we got excited for a minute that we’d be able to re-record it.
R: Yes, but we were first planning on doing the second record on Moon. They put down an offer and it was lower than what we thought. For what we were going for and where we were trying to go we needed more and asked them for it…
M: At that point we were still only, like, 21…and dead broke. So we were looking for a little bit of money so we didn’t have to go through what we did the first time.
R: We were learning from our mistakes…
M: An opportunity to go ‘bigger and better’ came up with Ignition Records and we went with it.
R: There were actually a couple different offers we had gotten at the time. Ignition Records was this ‘cool’ label off of Tommy Boy Records. It was their ‘rock’ division or whatever. We were told a lot of awesome things from Ignition Records.
M: Yeah, we were still young and if you dangle something really interesting in front of us and make it sound really good…then we’re going to go with it. We still didn’t know anything.
R: I remember we went to a thing for our booking agent, ICM, and the guy said to us, “You know where I see you in five years….MADISON SQUARE GARDEN!”
R: Oh, no. We didn’t. We were like, “Are you kidding me?” I thought he was f*ckin’ with us.
M: That was his pitch. He was going BIG!
R: He was like, “No…I don’t sign bands unless I believe they can do Madison Square Garden.” We’re like…you might wanna not sign in.
M: Yes! Once we got into the better studio and realized how much effort you had to put in. I mean, we were well rehearsed but as far as tones and all that stuff.
R: We did ‘Songs’ at The Hit Factory in New York. We’d be singing into a mic and the guy would be like, “That mic right there, Buddy Holly and John Lennon used it.”
M: “Michael Jackson recorded right where you’re standing. Are you ready to sing?” We were like…
R: “Naw…” Our buddy Ted Olson, from Big Mistake, engineered there and got us into The Hit Factory.
M: That was the only way we got in.
M: We’d been playing with Big Mistake from year one.
R: Yes. The funny thing is we were suppose to do a split with them of us covering each others songs…and they they never got around to it. So…thanks Big Mistake! (laughs)
M: Big Mistake was a talented band. You know, their recordings weren’t the greatest either but you know it’s good when you hear it. If we woulda done a third album, we would have covered another song! New York Citizens were the same way.
R: Yeah. Well. It started with the label.
M: The label thing was weird. It happened at a time when you really feel like it’s going to be your future. At that time, Tommy Boy hadn’t had a hit for a year. They cut us back and they really just cut the label. Remember Everlast? If that had come out six months earlier, basically we’d still be a band. We’d still be rockin’.
R: Even then. I think Tommy Boy just took all their money and dumped it into that…to push that Everlast record. I remember that Anthrax was on that label. I remember that being one of perks of signing to Ignition…we’d be on the same label as Anthrax!
M: (laughs)…and we find out later that Anthrax, like, considered that to be their lowest point as a band. Uggg…They hated that era.
M: You gotta understand that when we were doing shows, it never got worse. It just got better. We’d play with bands and there’d just be more and more people. We always had good a turn out.
R: It always kept building.
M: When the label said, “You’re done, we’re closing the doors” is when it hurt us. We debuted and were selling a thousand a week and then 500 a week after that. We charted on Billboard!
R: Just as we were getting it going, the label was like “We’re..uhhh…not gonna be a label anymore.” We were like, “…what?!” They told us we should think ‘outside of the box.’ They told us we should play arcades…like, for kids.
M: …and roller skating rinks. We’re like, “Dood…that’s not really what we’re going for.”
R: I remember sitting in that room, so f*ckin’ pissed. Staring down the guy…thinking “Are you f*ckin’ kidding me.”
M: We definitely tried. Our first goal was to get on another label. I say this, and I don’t know if the rest of the guys would agree…maybe Ron would agree…but I think it came down to management. It seemed like we knew more then our manager half of the time…and we didn’t know that much! No one sat us down and said “This is what you have to do.”
So our plan was just start over. Go record new demos and get going. We were pushing for the demos to sound good, but we weren’t getting the same ‘fire’ from the rest of guys. We were getting ideas from everyone and everyone started…kinda…going in different directions. A lot of ideas that were coming out were not in the direction that I wanted to go.
R: We were trying to get to a ‘next level.’ At that time, having horns were kind of a ‘poison’ to a band. We were kind of going in the direction of AC/DC with horns. With big riffs and jazzy horn lines and trying to do that type of thing.
R: (laughs) yeah…exactly. Some of the other guys were more on the page of a more ‘pop sound.’
M: I remember we handed over a demo to a girl who was trying to push our stuff and I remember that demo not sounding like who we were. It didn’t seem like it was the same band.
R: At that point we just decided to end when we were ‘up.’
M: Yeah, it was 8 years. It was a good run.
R: We were tired. We said, “Are we gonna beat this until it’s in the ground or do we wanna move on and try something new?” 8 years and two albums is a good run. It just didn’t seem like we were ‘moving forward’ and we didn’t feel like weathering the storm.
R: We did a benefit show for Dave. Dave’s girlfriend Trish, who became our booking agent (and ‘mother’,) set up a scholarship fund in Dave’s name and we played that benefit show. She organized the whole thing. The scholarship was for kids who wanted to play music too. Actually, I think it was for drums.
The 2010 reunion came because we’d all still bump into each other. We’d still hung out, drink beers, stuff like that. Toad’s offered us a show and at first we were apprehensive. Finally one day we decided to do.
M: Wasn’t it a challenge?
R: Me and Pete would go back and forth about it and Mike would always just be like “Shut up you assholes.” (laughs)
We decided the time was right when Matt Flood from Asbestos Records asked if we could put out the vinyl of both records. That was what sparked us to do that reunion. We did one show, it sold out and Toads asked us to do another one.
R: When Flood asked us to play his Christmas Party we couldn’t get everyone together so we decided to do it acoustic…with our friend Corky. Then when he started putting Skalapalooza together he asked us to do it the same way we did the Christmas Party. The shows started getting bigger…
M: …and we didn’t want to be the guys ‘jangling’ in the corner…playing acoustic.
R: We didn’t wanna be Simon & Garfunkel up there.
M: The whole thing just kinda grew from there. We knew Corky would be in and it just kinda grew.
R: There was a point were I was doing my solo thing and Nick (Keyboard) played keys. I’d do Spring Heeled Jack songs and they came out sounding real good. We ‘fixed it in the mix!’ We filled it out even more to make sure the feeling of it was still there.
R: We’ve actually talked about it. We’ve talked about it with everyone in the band. The horn players…and everyone’s down with it. Everyone’s willing to try.
M: I think everyone feels the same way. Everyone’s got a love for the music, each other and the band. Like that, “How great would it be to get in a room and do something again?” Are we all going to get in the van and do four shows in a week? Probably not, but you never know? We have a good time hanging out and now that everyone kinda went off and got in big bands…well except for me and Ron… (laughs) We’ve all grown a lot and have a lot of connections. I think we’ve aged well!
R: …Doing these reunion shows, we’ve also tried to keep this seperate from the ‘proper’ Spring Heeled Jacked. At this point the other guys have been in their bands longer then they were ever in Spring Heeled Jack.
M: One good memory I can think of is right when we signed to Ignition Records and we’re practicing in Dave’s bedroom. We at the height of playing and the record was ready to come out. I remember being, like, in a huddle…you know, we had the 30 packs and everything…and we were just so siked saying, “We did it. We f*cking did it!” The whole ‘The worlds at your feet’ moment.
R: I remember that, but I also remember the first time we played Toads. There was one night and the place was going ‘off.’ You gotta remember, at the time Toads was like the ‘corporate’ club to us. We avoided it in the beginning. They did the whole ‘pay to play’ thing with tickets and we were like “Fuck you man. We don’t need your club.” It was always the best sounding biggest club though. And then it came to a point when we were big enough to play there.
M: The Stones played there!
R: It was where the ‘legends’ played. Steel Wheels tour!
R: I’ve had a few…
M: I can’t remember her name…
R: Yeah…there’s a bunch of those, but it’s all hindsight.
M: 20/20. You always wish you had someone over your shoulder giving you the right advice. I’m amazed when people go through their life and it seems like they make all the right decisions, but maybe nobody does that.
R: We made a lot of right decisions for what we were doing and for what we thought was right. They always came from a place that was completely about doing good by us, by people who like us. We got some offers to do some crazy, stupid sh*t…make money…and other stuff, but we never felt comfortable in that skin.
Like someone would tell us we should cover Prince’s 1999, cause 1999 is coming up and you could be that…and we were just like, “Naw…that ain’t us.”
M: (sarcastically) Yeah…I wanna be made fun of next year…
R: Certain decisions were wrong in terms of ‘success’ and ‘money’ but those decisions wouldn’t fit into what we wanted to be and do.
R: We had integrity, I guess. I don’t regret having integrity.
R: The Bosstones used to come out on stage and just kill it. Back then, the whole crowd was going crazy and it was a mix of everybody. There wasn’t one scene…everyone just blended.
M: I would say Fishbone. I can’t fathom…the stage presence, the arrangement of the songs, the energy, the showmanship…everything.