Every April, as greenery unfolds into cherry blossoms and daffodils burst from the cool ground, I start to get excited for summer. The weather will warm, and I’ll shed my 8,000 layers of fleece, ready for rock and roll gigging season to kick into high gear. Sadly, last spring’s excitement was tempered by COVID, while this year’s is tempered with a bit of cautious optimism.
Is it right, to make like a Dionysian maenad, frolicking at a Beltaine-inspired musical gathering? Or do I have to pare back my dancing, even though I’m vaccinated?
These questions rotated in my mind on April 24, when I ventured 20 miles north from my home with my friend Steph, and headed toward Woodbridge, Conn., a town just off the Merritt Parkway not far from New Haven. My destination: a space called 10Selden, where the outside concrete blacktop had been transformed into a socially distanced, DIY music enclave.
Of course, masks and social distancing were in order, as expected. But it was 100 percent worth it. As much as I love Facebook Live-streaming, nothing beats the real deal — pure rock n’ roll in the flesh.
Shame Penguin kicked off the evening with an hour-long set of indie-punk/bluesy jams, saturated with atmospheric, delay-pedal guitar riffs, catchy bass lines, and poetic, powerful vocals which, at times, took me back to the late ’90s. As the daylight faded into sunset, Shame Penguin played its new single “Pretzel Time,” an ode to “the songbird,” as singer Dustin Sclafani (aka “EZ Bluez”) shared with me later on. If you haven’t streamed this track on Spotify, do it now.
Local band Fiction’s set kept the energy high with a sound I initially described as “a cross between Blink 182and Blues Traveler” to my friends — fun and powerful. Fiction’s cover of Sublime’s “Garden Grove” was possibly the best one I’ve heard. For a full review of the show, check out AMP’s myampmusic.co) writeup here.
My favorite takeaway from the night was the sense of community, the spirit of gratitude and happiness that radiated from every song — which is why I’ m so excited 10Selden’s series is extending into summer.
It’s been forever since my band played together for people other than our spouses, kids, or close friends. Most of my solo shows were broadcast from my living room in ’20 — or, once, from our drummer Nick’s driveway — via Facebook Live. The upcoming show will be the first time my punk-pop/grunge band has gigged IRL since last February, before the carefree music-mom life I knew skidded to a halt.
This summer, we have gigs scheduled for 6/21 (for Make Music New York, in NYC’s Tomkins Square Park); 8/21, and 9/3 (so far). We’re also hoping to plan a safe, indoor live music show at a venue in our state. Admittedly, there are a lot of unknowns, such as how many music fans will get vaccinated, whether clubs in Connecticut will make like New York City with some version of the Excelsior pass, and how strong the new COVID variants are in triggering “breakthrough” cases.
But while everyone will have to adjust to a “new normal” in live music this summer, the privilege of playing live music is no longer one I take for granted.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.
The greatest rock songs have the coolest riffs — like AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Joan Jett’s “I love Rock n’ Roll.” But without lyrical substance, many these tunes would fade from memory.
New Haven indie punk band Shame Penguin’s ‘Fall of the Mountain King’ gives us both.
The song opens with a catchy bass riff, which eases itself into the auditory cortex of one’s brain— almost seducing the listener to sway to the mellow beat. But if you just stick to the surface, bopping along as the music segues from clean and distorted and back again, you could miss the song’s true cathartic beauty.
Pay attention as singer Dustin Sclafani’s vocals escalate from nostalgic and whispery to the brink of anger, and you’ll learn that the idealized childhood he rhapsodized about in the first verse never actually happened.
We recently caught up with Sclafani to tell us more about this piece, and what Shame Penguin’s been up to lately.
Rockmommy: ‘Fall of the Mountain King’ is so many things — it’s easy to listen to, yet it’s catchy and it’s complicated, lyrically. What was the story you wanted to tell?
Dustin Sclafani: The story behind Mountain King’s lyrics is an interesting one for sure. I wanted to give the sense of confusion to the listener make them lean in and go back and listen again and again. See, I grew up in a single parent household before it was considered a normal family structure. So throughout school I was consistently living in a state of confusion, forced to make Father’s Day cards for no one and really told by society I could never be a real man because I never had those critical father-son moments that drenched pop culture like ‘Field of Dreams’ — nope I never played catch or learned how to throw a spiral.
So these lyrics are more of a statement against the nuclear family, the first verse is everything pop culture tells us is important for a father and son, the first states that, ”That was not my life….” the second chorus brings the listener into the reality of what was my life and the second verse is the imagery conversation I have had with my father that has brought me peace. I wrote these lyrics for every son that grew up fatherless to let them all know they are not alone and they are going to be OK.
RM: Can you tell us about the songwriting process with Shame Penguin?
DS: I actually love this question because it had so many answers … usually Tristan Powell would send me riffs that he comes up with and if one jumps out I either bring lyrics that I have already written, because I have notebooks and notebooks of lyrics, or I will find a phrase that fits perfectly too it. Then we will meet up and go over the song a couple of times before we bring it to practice and we as a band jam on it. Sometimes Jon Ozaksut will be noodling around on the bass and come up with these ridiculous bass phrases that are just too good to ignore and we write from there — btw that is how Mountain King was written. But honestly I don’t consider any songs written till we have jammed on them a couple of times and we begin to widdle at it and the song tells us what it is going to be.
RM: We’re in COVID life. Did that impact recording or writing and producing?
DS: Covid 19 impacted everything… early March we were set to launch our EP and start playing out ridiculously… then the industry shut down and all four of us didn’t even really play together for 4 months. See, people have to understand I have a son that is the youngest survivor of open heart surgery so I have to be careful.
In that time Vic Steffens, the most amazing producer and person ever, pulled me aside and said that the rest of our material was really good and he wanted us to do a full-length instead of our original EP. So I mean when someone of that caliber believes in you enough to invest further as the rest of the world is burning around you, you gotta feel pretty lucky. So after our lockdown hiatus we went to Sage Sound Studios, because to save local businesses you have to support local business, and the four of us had to relearn what it was like to be a band. Covid hit us so hard I have 2 grand worth of merch shirts in my closet (available on our bandcamp) lol.
RM: Can you talk about how you’re trying to be the best dad you can be, even though you didn’t have the traditional ‘model’ in your own youth?
Well, you see it is a blessing and a curse. Traditionally, we are raised to be better then the generation before us. So me being in my kid’s lives at all is an upgrade. But in all honesty because I helped raise my little brother and sister when I was 9 on I kind of had a cheat code.
RM: Have your sons heard the song? What do they think?
DS: My oldest Cash was in the studio when I recorded the vocals and to be transparent I was not in his life from when he was 2 till he was about 8 years old — his mother and I were young and I was in a very destructive relationship with my twin son’s mother at the time. So the song kind of hits him as well. But all three of my guys love the track and honestly all the stuff Shame Penguin does because they get to see me happy and they see how hard I work for them and they want me to be happy just like them.
RM: What’s next for Shame Penguin this fall?
DS: In October we are shooting an interesting concept video for ‘Mountain King’ and we are finishing up some final touches on the album and preparing it for release. We started a weekly livestream concert series every Wed night on our Facebook page called Maraczi Midnight Radio and we are hoping to do some outdoor, safe shows and of course we wait for our world to open back up again. Oh and the most important thing myself and R&B artist and dope dad Manny James have acquired a bus that will be taking people to the voting polls Nov 3rd because we are all about being the change we are looking for.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.
Everyone’s talking about what they can’t wait to do once the great quarantine is over. I have my own list, and one thing is certain: I need to see Shame Penguin play live!
I live in Connecticut, in a part of the state that’s dominated by rock n’ roll cover bands. So when Dustin Sclafani, lead singer of the New Haven, Conn., indie-punk quartet, reached out to send me the band’s single “Live In Technicolor” I was absolutely blown away. I listened once, then again, letting the funky, jam-rock vibe fill my head, while Sclafani’s soulful, bellowing vocals commanded my attention. But it was the lyrics I loved the most:
So I throw my hands up
And I’ll put my hood up
And I’ll resist till I can’t breathe
So we’ll stand up
And we’ll rise up
Till we’re truly free
Having grown up in DC, with bands like Black Flag and Bikini Kill setting the tone for my love of activist and resistance rock, I felt at home listening to Shame Penguin’s single. “Live In Technicolor” filled me with nostalgia for my ’90s favorites, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers — music interspersed with prominent baselines and twinkling guitar riffs and beautiful vocals. But while Shame Penguin’s music flows like old-school RHCP — mixed with a pinch of Misfits-era Glenn Danzig, and a dash of Dispatch’s folksiness (minus the bro harmonies) — the lyrics call out to more urgent, pre- and post-2016 social issues, like racism, homophobia, and nationalism.
“This song started while walking thru the streets of New Haven as the tensions over Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner continued to grow and I started seeing the rifts that have now almost cemented them back into American culture,” Sclafani tells Rockmommy.
As it turns out, Sclafani, who writes the band’s music with guitarist Tristan Powell (and bassist Jon Ozaksut and drummer Kenny Maraczi), has a lot more in common with me than a love for inspiring punk lyrics and cool melodies.
When he’s not making music, he’s a busy dad raising three sons — 10-year-old twins Milez and Joey, and 13-year-old Cash. What’s more, he’s a single parent, a job that’s become even more challenging in early 2020’s homeschool-quarantine period. Yet he still manages to pop onto my social media feed, belting out soulful, heartfelt originals and covers, armed with only an acoustic guitar and a desire to break through the noise.
We recently caught up with Dustin Sclafani about Shame Penguin’s forthcoming album, (produced by Vic Stevens of Horizon Studios), songwriting, recording ‘Live In Technicolor’ and more.
Rockmommy: So how did you get into music?
Dustin Sclafani: I was born to a single mother in suburban Long Island. Because she had me at a young age, I grew up more [alongside] my mom, which made our relationship more then just a child-parent relationship.
I started singing with my mom at a young age. I remember as far back as kindergarten doing harmony lines with my mom to House Of Pooh Corner and Teach Your Children before I knew the ABC song.
The only constant in my extremely colorful and chaotic life has been and will always be music. I started writing and playing shows acoustically when I was 16 even did an original song at my senior variety show. Performing music on stage is the most I ever truly free and truly myself. I tell people all the time “you never really knew me till you see me live.
Rockmommy: What inspired you to write “Live In Technicolor?”
Dustin Sclafani: This song started while walking thru the streets of New Haven as the tensions over Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner continued to grow and I started seeing the rifts that have now almost cemented them back into American culture. We have lost all of our cultural heroes — The Marvins, The Malcoms, The Lennon-Onos … our music wasn’t saying anything in a time where I felt we needed it the most, so change comes from within and I penned the verses and never feel on a hook I liked. Until Shame Penguin started in my living room last March (2019). Tristan, my guitarist, has this amazing way to understand my meaning without ever hearing my words. The driving chorus brought the anthem out of me.
Rockmommy: What’s it like balancing kids and music — especially now?
Dustin Sclafani: I don’t balance kids and music, but I am a different case — I am raising my three sons in this lifestyle. It makes for late nights and early mornings. But the weirdest things are giving my sons the freedom to develop their own likes, even if it is generic pop music. It’s a constant, “really you literally call people ‘uncle’ who are better artists than that crap.’” But I try and let them discover themselves. It’s also interesting because my sons think our life is like other people’s. When the younger guys were in 3rd grade they would be surprised that their friends’ dads didn’t take them to the studio or do Instagram music clips.
Rockmommy: Do any of them love a certain kind of music because of your influence, you know, taking them to the studio and stuff like that?
Dustin Sclafani: It’s interesting because, especially with Milez and Joey, since I got custody of them, music has been part of their everyday life. Ray Charles “Shake your tail feather” from the Blues Brothers movie helped teach Milez how to talk — he was born with two congenital heart defects, and during surgery at 2 weeks old one of his vocal chords got nicked and it now moves slower than the others. So at 3 and a half his speech was only 33% recognizable to the average ear. So I started playing Ray Charles and Tom Waits and showed him sounding different is OK. But Milez’s favorite band is New Haven’s own Phat A$tronaut — he sat in on Djembe with them when he was 7. Joey loves musicals and is big ‘Greatest Showman’ fan. Cash is 13 so he actually is really into Shame Penguin and loves showing it off to his friends. But Cash really respects Tristan, our guitar player, who is an aspiring visual artist with anime influence — just like him. Tristan is also a big Red Hot Chili Peppers fan and Cash made sure his mom got him a RHCPs T-shirt in this year’s new school clothes shopping trip.
Rockmommy: Why is music so important now?
Dustin Sclafani: I love music and culture, thru out history when the arts thrived civilization thrived. But besides now we are at the most polarizing time in my life, echoes of our hate filled history ripple thru us daily. It is our job as the Troubadours and Heralds to deliver substance and feeling. To take all the darkness in the world and put all thru our individual kaleidoscope and project it back into the hearts and minds of the masses. We are the voices of the voiceless whether the bitterness of reality or the spoonful of sugar needed to swallow it.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.