JJ Rassler, Cuban Heels



by Joe Coughlin

On the, uh, heels of
their sparkling release,
Behold! (Green Mist Records), I was lucky enough to
get the straight poop from the members, who explain not only their sense
of history, but their own place within it as regards the bigger picture.
It all comes together on the disc; a seamless, lovingly crafted homage
to some of their biggest inspirations, while remaining a fresh-baked
original recipe all its own, with no filler or flat-out mimicry. A pretty
fuckin’ tall order, if you ask me. But they say it much better than
I could, so here you go:

(bass, vocals): I’ve
been playing in bands for about 18 years. I’ve been playing with JJ
for some 11 years, starting with the Downbeat 5 in 2000, the DB5’s
alter ego the Second Cousins, and now thee Cuban Heels. What’s kept
me involved with music is the opportunity to continue playing all types
of music I like, the great musicians I’ve been involved with, and most
of all, the many fantastic people I’ve met and got to know over the
years at our gigs and other shows. There’s a common ground and unmistakable
camaraderie among the bands, audiences, local press, clubs, studios.
They’re all so linked together because so many individuals are part
of the circuit in multiple capacities. A person in a band may also be
the one who books a venue, or is an engineer at a studio, or writes
for the
Noise, etc. It’s a very unique landscape that
I’m happy to still be a part of.

Jeff Norcross (drums and percussion): I’m currently a member
of the Weisstronauts. I play drums, bass, guitar or percussion, whatever’s
needed. Over the years, I’ve played drums with the Downbeat 5, Don
Lennon, Paula Kelley, Sool, Army of Jasons, and others. I had recently
joined Downbeat 5 when JJ and Mike were putting together the band that
became Thee Cuban Heels. JJ gave me a compilation of covers that he wanted
to try with TCH; a mix of old rock ’n’ roll, obscure pop and soul,
instrumentals and vocal numbers. JJ promised that we’d have the opportunity
to record and release a record within a year, which was very enticing.
After meeting Julian, I decided to jump on board. Making
was a lot of fun. We spent three days with Pete Weiss at Verdant Studio
in Vermont and completed everything except vocals (JJ, Mike and Julian
recorded those back in Boston with Eric Salt). We set out to make a record
that sounded similar to Shel Talmy’s work with the Kinks, the Who,
and others. Not a slavish copy of Talmy’s work, but something evocative
of those records.

(guitar, vocals): When
I was 15, I bought my first guitar. I played in a local punk band called
Faulty Conscience for a few years. I met JJ a couple years ago through
our mutual employment. Having seen the Downbeat 5 several times, I jumped
at the chance when he asked if I wanted to jam. I was nervous. It was
JJ freakin’ Rassler! He came and jammed, and there was chemistry.
He immediately asked me if I wanted in on his new project. I was thrilled
to hear his idea for the direction he wanted to go. I was raised on
oldies. My parents had a good collection of Stones, Beatles, Bob Dylan,
etc. I’m 26. I love most all music, but my favorite thing in the world—music
or otherwise—is the Beatles. That, and
Side Story
. When JJ proposed
calling us Thee Cuban Heels, he said it’s like the Beatle boots, or
the shoes the Sharks wear in
Side Story
. I said yes. I love
playing in this band because I sweat and people dance. It has also given
me cause to listen to countless ’60s bands I never would have heard
of. I feel very lucky to be playing with these vetted players.

(guitar and vocals)
sends a third-person account, Q&A to follow: Born in Philadelphia,
he started gigging with bands in 1965. By 1966, he’d already seen
the Beatles, Stones, and Beach Boys, just for starters. After 1970,
he hitch-hiked across the country for a few years, settling for good
in Boston in 1973. He found a gig working at WBCN on the Maxanne show.
It was at this point he met Peter Greenberg and together formed DMZ.
Working in record stores since he was 16, he still finds the time to
do this at Stereo Jack’s. When DMZ imploded, he spent a decade with
Preston Wayne in the Odds. The end of the ’80s found him playing guitar
and writing tunes for the Queers. He maintained a close contact with
the band, and later went on to produce some of their more critically
acclaimed releases in the ’90s. In 1999, he and Jen D’Angora formed
the Downbeat 5, which still has life. On the side, JJ played guitar
with Triple Thick for three years. But most of the hours were spent
working as Rounder Records’ national promo rep for for 20-plus years.
He’s shared stages with Johnny Thunders, the Fleshtones, the Stray
Cats, the Del Fuegos, David Johansen, the Alarm, the Chesterfield Kings,
and countless others.

Noise: You got majorly sidelined recently, what

JJ: Just a really weird predicament where the
car backed over a road sign, and like an idiot, thought I could free
it from scraping the gas tank with my bare hands. The car went forward
and the sign had to go through my finger to dig deeper in the ground.
I was wedged half under the sign and ripped my hand out to get free.
Came close to losing the left index finger. Still doing physical therapy
and trying to get feeling back into the tip. It’s a slow process and
I’m not the most patient person, but in order for it to heal right,
I gotta go slow with it. Still can’t bend it or move it much, but
I’m hopeful.

Noise: You had to cancel a show, which I know is
not something you take lightly. What’s up in the meantime?

JJ: Yeah, we had a gig a few days after the accident.
I was in shock and didn’t realize how bad it was, so we had to cancel
at the last minute. We’ve been rehearsing, though, and it’s been
helpful concentrating on other aspects of the band as a whole, and working
out harmonies, which is something we all are into. So we’re trying
not to be idle.

Noise: I, for one, am glad to finally see a record
with your name on the cover.

JJ: Well, under my name is not how I’d wanted
it or envisioned it. The label we’re dealing with was strong on that
aspect of the name. But the effort was clearly the band’s. Some of
the songs on it are from my past, and others are ones we wrote together.

Noise: I see one that was on a Queers album from
the ’90s, and that the Downbeat 5 did on their live CD.

JJ: That was one I wrote 20 years ago, when I
was in the Odds, a song called “Number One.” When the Queers did
Don’t Back Down album. I contributed some tunes and that was
one. A band in Belgium, Nervous Shakes [now called Shake Appeal], covered
it and got some airplay on Radio Luxemburg with it. DB5 did it live
for years. I just hadn’t really gotten around to doing it like I heard
it in my head.

Noise: You’re still playing with some of the DB5
players, is that band still intact?

JJ: The core of thee Cuban Heels is DB5 related,
the new guy is Julian Hammond on the other guitar. We met a few years
ago and found a lot of similar musical tastes and decided to try playing
together. Inside a half hour we both knew we’d be doing a band together.
He’s a young guy, but he has one of the broadest ranges of musical
influences of most people I know who are twice his age. I knew he’d
be a natural with the DB5 guys, Mike and Jeff. Mike and I had always
thought of doing something in addition to the DB5. He’s got a great
voice and definitely adds his taste to the dynamic. After a decade of
playing together, it’s great to find new common ground and a fresh
approach. Jeff has been the “stable” one. He was instrumental in
us working with Pete Weiss on the album, as they play together quite

Noise: Your own basic style is fairly unmistakable,
but you’re mixing it up with all kinds of new tones and stuff now.

JJ: There’s a lot of other influences that
have always been around in my head, but I hadn’t had much opportunity
to try out. I like a soundtrack, cityscape instrumentals, and usually
get one in on an album, but we expanded more on that concept with this
one. It’s something we’re all into. But we like soul music, and
country, and there are touches of that too. Of course we hit on some
stuff that’s more in tune with what most people know of my playing.
But I like a lot of different things, like Gabor Szabo, that we hint
at. There will always be more stuff of a varied nature coming out as
we grow. I can’t play jazz, but I like attempting it in a garage way.
We can’t sing that well, so when we attempt doo-wop, we call it don’t-wop.
It’s more about attempting what we like.

Noise: There’s a very “real,” immediate feel
to the record. Are you happy with it?

JJ: I’m never completely happy with any recordings
I’ve been involved with. Some came out like I wanted, some didn’t.
I was sick as hell when we had to do the vocals and barely croaked my
way through them. In some ways, that helped! But that’s just me, I’m
always hearing what could’ve been done differently. We all feel lucky
to be doing this project together. Everyone has a wide range of tastes
and influences, and the moxie to try oddball stuff and flow with it.
With the lead vocals now being shared equally by three of us, and the
two guitars working so well on the instros, it keeps getting better
and more varied. There’s a lot of sides to rock ’n’ roll that
we still want to touch on. As long as we’re having fun. We see people
dancing in a small joint, that’s what it’s all about. It ain’t
nothin’ if it ain’t a kick.


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