Trip Riley

Joe “Trip” Riley, lead singer and songwriter for North Bronx-based band Sweetfart

Joe “Trip” Riley, big boss of the North Bronx band Sweetfart, eschews home fries. He’s also an egg-whites-only-omelet and whole-wheat-toast-no-butter kind of guy. These observations, unspectacular as they are, were among the first made at a recent sit down I had with Trip in an old school diner near Van Cortland Park. Then came a second observation, or perhaps more precisely, realization: Trip had not waited for me to order (despite my being right on time).  Oh well, I wasn’t hungry anyway. After clearing with Trip that I’d be recording our conversation we got down to business.

I see you eat healthy—do you follow any particular diet?

Fucking Christ. That your idea of an “ice breaker” question?

I suppose so. But also I’m genuinely curious. My thought is it might explain the extraordinary energy I’ve seen you display during performance.

Okay, let’s get on with it.

Excuse me? Uh, okay. Can you fill in a bit on your background? Besides the fact that you toured in the early eighties with Captain Beefheart, not much is known.

Not much to know—I’ve made music ever since I figured out there was nothing else worth doing. By the way, are all your questions going to be this Mickey Mouse?

Mr. Riley—

Call me Trip.

Trip, you agreed to sit down for an interview. If you’d like to change your mind, go ahead. But there’s no need to pick a fight.

You’re right. I apologize.

Really? Thank you. You know, I’m guessing, that notwithstanding the clearly organic antagonistic aspect to your sensibility—readily evident in the music and performance of your band—the current sudden spotlight you’re under might be somehow amplifying these qualities.

You mean the attention I’m getting is making me into even more of a prick than usual?

Precisely.

Possible. Definitely possible.

Can you tell me what it’s been like?

Sure, strange as hell. The last eight weeks—definitely the weirdest, most whacked out of my life.

The rumor is Sweetfart is being courted by Sire Records. That you’ve been made an offer. Is that true?

Yeah, it is.

Is the band going to accept it?

Not sure. Not sure at all. On one side we say crap, it’s somehow hard to turn down money for something we’re going to be doing anyway, pretty much for draft beers and pretzels. But on the other, well, there’s an old saying ‘if you take the King’s money, you become the King’s man.’

And that’s no good?

Fucking aye.

Is it safe to say you have a complicated relationship with the concept of success?

You mean commercial success, yes?

Yes.

Sure. Because, first of all, I’ve never had any. [He laughs] Anyhow, we’ll see. After all, egg white omelets ain’t cheap these days.

As I’m sure you’re aware, people are placing Sweetfart and several other North Bronx bands into an emergent category of rock n roll called “Geezer Punk”. What’s your response to this phrase?

I don’t like it. Not because I’m insulted, but because it’s lazy. Like all labels. Gives people cover to not think for themselves. Not that people need much cover for that anymore.

I’d like to talk about the music for a moment.

Be my guest.

Sweetfart’s sound… It seems the more I listen the more I hear almost recognizable shadings and underpinnings. So, at the risk of inspiring more abuse, can I ask about influences?

Sure, you can ask.

Okay…

But I ain’t going to get into it. Mind you, it’s not a total dipshit question. Only about half-dipshit. Still, it’s nothing I want to start jabbering on about, voluntarily. But… But, there is one thing I will say, and that is this: Joe Strummer.

What about him?

There was a man. The real thing. I met him once, too. Many years ago, in Wheeling, West Virginia, at a time I was in dire shape. What exactly he was doing there I still don’t know. But he bought me two shots of well whiskey and said a few things I still think about. Think about all the time.

Great story! Care to tell me what he said? [Trip stares impassively] Next question: Something that sticks out about Sweetfart and a few other North Bronx bands is a kind of pointed skepticism, even animosity toward youth. How did that come to be?

Naturally, that’s how. When they started showing up at our shows. Before that I hadn’t paid attention. But now I looked out and saw them, a bunch of zombies—staring at screens, taking pictures of things instead of seeing them, either too dumb or too numb to know how pissed off they are. So I said so to their faces, and it struck a chord—no pun intended.

Yes, definitely, it seems like speaking harshly to and about youth is a large part of the North Bronx scene’s appeal. Ironically, for the kids themselves. What do you think of the idea that this, along with a movement toward the re-empowerment of older Americans, represents a cultural pivot, or bona fide shift in the zeitgeist?

Did you just say something?

Yes, what I mean—

No, no, I got you. But lucky for me figuring out crap like that falls way outside of my job description.

Which is?

Writing songs. Making sounds. Setting a thing or two straight.

Damn, I wish I said that. So, can you share any sense of what Sweetfart’s plans are at this juncture?

Yeah, that’s easy. Doing what we’re doing. That’s the good part about cutting your teeth on obscurity. We play just as hard when no one’s listening.

I’ve been conducting an informal poll on the topic of mottos. Do you have one, and if so might you share it with me?

Yes and yes, as a matter of fact [Holding out his forearm to highlight a faded tattoo]

Pulsat ad finem asino. Latin?

Yeah, I’m a Catholic School survivor.

What does pulsat ad finem asino mean?

Kicking ass to the end.

That’s fucking great. Can I wish you good luck?

Sure, but you can also take your leave. If it’s all the same, I prefer to eat my omelet in peace.

 

Kevin Mandel is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He writes fiction and plays and is currently working on a novel. He can be reached at KPMandel at gmail dot com.

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