Campfire Flies: North Jersey’s indie rock elite go acoustic
Northern New Jersey became a musical hotbed during the new wave scene of the late 70s. Bands like The Feelies and The Bongos became nationally known, but The Cucumbers, Speed the Plough, The Thousand Pities and dozens of others contributed to a climate that’s kept the music vital as the years rolled on. The Campfire Flies are continuing that tradition.
In 2008, a group of songwriters who began performing in those heady days created the Saturday Afternoon Song Swap. The loose aggregation began meeting regularly to present new tunes, in an acoustic setting, to an audience of their peers. Deena Shoshkes of The Cucumbers, and singer/songwriter Rebecca Turner, organized the first gathering, to offer support and encouragement to other songwriters.
“We wanted to create a community, and an audience, for new work,” Shoshkes said. “Songwriters are the best audience for each other. Rebecca and I both had different circles of songwriter friends that overlapped a bit. We’ve met a lot of great people through the song swap over the years. On our 10th anniversary, we had a show with over 30 songwriters performing. Then we put out a two CD compilation with 70 songs on it, Swap Thing, Pt 1 & Swap Thing, Pt 2. It’s up on CD Baby and the usual digital outlets. The Swaps aren’t exactly concerts, just a gathering to stimulate people to write new music and play it for each other. It’s somewhere between a workshop and performance, although we don’t give any criticism to each other. It’s more like a celebration.”
As the Swap evolved, six of its regular members decided to get together. Shoshkes explains: “Ed (Seifert, of Speed the Plough) heard a song I’d written and said, ‘You should have an accordion on that song and John (Baumgartner, Speed the Plough) plays accordion.’ I was invited to perform as a solo artist at a club, with Matt (Davis, of The Thousand Pities) sharing the bill. Instead of doing separate sets, we decided to play together with Ed, John (Baumgartner), Toni (Baumgartner, Speed the Plough) and my husband Jon (Fried, Cucumbers). We all knew each other, but this was the first time we all played together. The night we rehearsed for the show, there was a storm. The power went out, so we played by candlelight. It was magical. None of us are virtuosos on any instrument. We come at it at as songwriters. It was done for the love of the songs and the singing and the harmonizing. With the six of us together, it’s more than the sum of its parts. That first show went so well, we decided to become a band.”
That was two and a half years ago. “We all strum through the songs with acoustic instruments, like a campfire sing along,” Shoshkes said. “So we became The Campfire Flies. Our first album, Sparks Like Tiny Stars, comes with a little book of lyrics that has all the chords, so if somebody wants to play along with the songs, they can.”
The 11 songs on the Sparks Like Tiny Stars are full of expansive melodies, warm interlocking harmonies and first rate picking. Guitar, mandolin and banjo dominate the arrangements, with keys, percussion and the occasional flute, clarinet and accordion thrown in for extra color. Everybody plays percussion.
“Most of us compose on acoustic guitar,” Shoshkes said. “Since we’re all getting older, it tends to be nice and mellow, although we all still like to rock out. Live, we’re more rough and ready. We have more rockers, things we didn’t select for this album, so we’re a little more upbeat and energetic.”
The Campfire Flies recorded the album as live as possible. “We set up in the studio and played together, with as many mics as possible,” Shoshkes said. “We didn’t sing live, ‘cause there are so many harmonies. John and Toni have a little recording studio at their place and Jon and I do as well, so we recorded the vocals at home. We mixed it all in a weekend at another studio. The arrangements happen naturally, when we start playing. We have a little push and pull in rehearsals, but everything on the album is how we do it live. It’s loose, but we’re on the same wavelength, so it works.”