The recently reunited Hoboken New Wave greats dig into their vault (and desk drawer) for a killer new rarities set
When “My Boyfriend,” the first single by The Cucumbers, appeared on the airwaves in 1983, it caused a sensation that swept the nation.
The band’s first album, Who Betrays Me…and Other Happier Songs, hit the college radio charts, their videos got played on MTV and they were reviewed in Rolling Stone and the New York Times. The quartet played up and down the East Coast and toured the South, Midwest and California, but lost momentum after the band’s founders, Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried, began having children in 1989. The bright, upbeat tunes written by the duo were driven along by the interplay of their crisp lead guitar lines and the charismatic lead vocals of Shoshkes. They made instant fans of anyone fortunate enough to see them live or buy one of their early albums. They’ve continued to make music and produce albums, but they’ve had to depend on their day jobs to make ends meet since the early 90s.
VIDEO: The Cucumbers “My Boyfriend”
Those who have never heard their music should treat themselves to their latest release The Desk Drawer Tapes, available now on all digital platforms. The ten tunes on the album are full of the quirky charm and cracking energy that should have made them stars. The four recording sessions documented on the album span the years between 1988 and 2005, but the sound recalls the band’s first albums.
“How Far Can You Go” blends acoustic and electric strumming to drive a jaunty rock tune that questions the sudden implosion of a relationship. “Our Love Is What We Are” is a poignant mid tempo ballad that celebrates the love that exists, even when an affair is over. Shoshkes and Fried exchange wonderful harmonic phrases that recall the good times left behind. Fried’s stuttering electric guitar and the duo’s harmonies drive “Shout to Be Heard.” Shoshkes delivers a rowdy vocal to urge a passive lover to show some kind of emotion. Fried magnifies her plea with a distorted guitar solo. While they often sing about heartache and missed connections, the optimistic melodies and Shoshkes’ animated vocals keep things from getting too serious.
Shoshkes spoke to The Globe about the band’s past, present and future from the home she shares with her partner, Jon Fried, in New Jersey.
Why did you put this album out now? Some songs are 33 years old.
A few years ago, we reissued our early material, digitally – our first EP, Fresh Cucumbers, Who Betrays Me… and a single of “All Shook Up.” We re-mastered them and threw in a few other tunes we never released. It led to renewed interest in our music. One of the songs, “Don’t Watch TV,” found itself on the soundtrack of The Little Things, a film starring Denzel Washington. We always thought that was our best stuff.
AUDIO: The Cucumbers “Don’t Watch TV”
Did you actually find these tapes in a desk drawer?
Yes. I have desk in a studio in my attic. I throw all kinds of finished masters in the drawers for safe-keeping. With the pandemic, I started cleaning up the music room and found them. A lot of them were never mixed, some we forgot e’d even recorded. Some of the stuff, the ones with horn players, we cut while we were between record deals. The labels we signed with weren’t interested in them, so we put them aside. When I listened to them, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! We put so much into these tunes, and its so easy to put things out digitally, so why not?’ These songs were made between phases of the band. Some of them weren’t finished or mixed.
How were the songs originally recorded?
They were all done in studios, with a band. Generally we cut our tracks live, then do overdubs. Some of them were more complete then others. “The Boss’s Song” has a lot of sampled vocals to mimic the background noise of working in an office. Jon’s bother Joshua is an EDM musician known as Radio Wonderland. He cut up and sampled some of the horn parts.
We re-mastered the songs that had never been mixed. It was exciting to mix them with our favorite engineer, Rob Freidman.
We were gonna present them in chronological order, but it didn’t sound right. We tried to balance the upbeat songs with the slower ones to get the mood we were trying to create.
We always had a great time recording in the 80s and 90s. There was a greater intensity in the studio. We didn’t have unlimited budgets, so we had to rent time by the hour, then go in and perform. We had to nail them fast, so it was a real performance.
Did you do any overdubs or tweaking, before you released these tapes?
What you hear is what we heard when we made them. Adding anything would have been opening up a real can of worms.
How did you get through the last year on lockdown?
We have day jobs and can work from home. Jon is a video editor. I give guitar and piano lessons to little kids. We did several live stream performances, something we’d never done before. No band, just the two of us. You communicate with people while you’re playing online. You see little hearts and messages go across the screen and then you turn it off and you’re home. We did perform outdoors whenever possible. That was exciting, being with people, even at a distance. People were so grateful for live music and so responsive.
So what’s next?
We’re going off in different directions. Jon writes novels and short stories. I started writing more folky, singer/songwriter things and put out a couple of solo albums. When I write a new song, Jon’s the first to hear it and he’ll give me one little chord that will make all the difference. He writes an occasional song, but his primary outlet is fiction. He gets up early everyday and writes before he starts work. He’s very disciplined. I write songs all the time. I’ve got piles and piles of songs.
Have you recorded any new Cucumbers tunes lately? Will there be a Cucumbers reunion concert or a new album?
Over the years, we’ve played reunion shows. Our former band mates are our neighbors and live pretty close by. Every year we play a benefit or a party in Hoboken. When we play as a duo, we have a lot of things to draw upon – Cucumbers songs, my solo albums and more recently recorded stuff. We just call it Jon and Deena from The Cucumbers. We have a couple of sets of things as a duo, so the next Cucumbers album maybe a semi-acoustic album, but I like a rhythm section, so who knows?
I do all kinds of things in our home studio. I have all kinds of little toys and do experimental recording too, so I’m all over the place.