By Megan McClure
River City Extension is taking the long way home. Hailing from Tom’s River, New Jersey, the eight-piece band recently finished a three day, two show stint opening for Kevin Devine at SXSW, and had just rolled into Athens, Georgia when I spoke with band founder, Joe Michelini. After playing a show in Athens, the band will continue to wind their way up the coast, playing dates all along the Eastern Seaboard until finding their way back to Jersey.
River City Extension took a long way to get where they are as a band, as well. Michelini started River as a solo artist, showcasing his songwriting skills as a man and his guitar. There were small line-up changes along the way, but nothing permanent. Then, when Michelini went into the studio to record, he reconnected with an old friend and current River cello player, Jenn Fantaccione. Another friend from high school joined them and when the collaboration seemed to work, the three started playing shows. “We were all acoustic – an acoustic guitar, cello and acoustic bass. Not an upright. It looks like an oversized guitar,” Michelini describes.
A few more players joined the line-up, but Michelini says they took it show by show. Now, that incarnation of River City Extension is still taking it show by show today. And Michelini makes it a point to describe River City Extension as an eight-piece band and not one man with seven musicians backing him up. He knows it will happen slowly, but Michelini wants to give the rest of the band the opportunity to change and expand and show off what they can do through his songwriting, “River City Extension is not about one person. It’s about River City Extension as a band, as a live experience, as a record…” he trails off. The list could go on.
Musically, they all have varying tastes, but Michelini says, for the most part, they all like listening to the same things, “In the van, right now, we’re big into Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s. We love them.” Modest Mouse and Guster are two of Michelini’s personal faves, but he’s finding himself gravitate back toward music from his early years as a songwriter. “I was very into singer-songwriter/heartfelt/pop-punk music,” he says, and that includes artists like Dashboard Confessional and Say Anything.
“The name River City Extension came from my hometown, but it’s also from a song called ‘The Trouble with River Cities’. The band name came from feeling like that song perfectly described my life,” he says. The song is by We Are Augustine, a band who proved to be a huge influence on Michelini when he first started writing songs and for River City Extension, too, “The bass player got us our first New York show.”
But Michelini’s “a-ha” moment came long before that. It was when his father bought him tickets to the Project Revolution tour featuring Lincoln Park as the headliners. Up until that point, Michelini hadn’t seen a lot of shows. He was 17 years old, and he remembers watching a band perform on the outside stage, located in the parking lot of the PNC Bank Center near his New Jersey hometown. He can’t remember who the band was, but the feeling he felt watching them is something he will never forget, “There were 1,000 people out in this parking lot, and I remember watching them respond to the music and to each other. It was so overwhelming, I wanted to cry. It was a really, really cool thing, and right then, in that moment, I knew: I have to do this.”
He was already writing songs at that point, and with one year left to go before graduating high school, he asked his parents if he could opt out of college for one year in favor of trying to start a band. They agreed and Michelini knows he’s lucky that way, “My parents have always been supportive.”
So he made a go of it without straying too far from Tom’s River, and in true New Jersey style, Michelini is fiercely loyal to his Jersey roots and finds it to be a huge misconception that bands need to move to New York City or Los Angeles in order to be successful, “So many great bands come from these tiny towns that no one has heard of. A lot of really honest music comes out of these small towns,” he says and pauses before continuing, “There’s honesty in a big city, but I think it’s harder to find.”
Up next for the band is touring, touring and more touring. They’ve got a few festivals lined up for the summer, including a few weeks with Warped Tour. In addition, Michelini’s been writing and the band is already working on some new material. The greenlight has been lit for their second album, which Michelini hopes to get into the studio and start recording in the fall.
When thinking back to that Project Revolution tour, Michelini chuckles, “Uh-oh – my 17 year old self is coming back to haunt me.” Good thing: if his 17 year old self wasn’t sneaking up behind him, River City Extension might not be here today.