Fishtown carries its own mystical (but apocryphal) local legend. Townsfolk have long claimed the municipality attributes its nickname to English author Charles Dickens, who reportedly visited the seafaring village in the mid-1800s. That rumor has been debunked, of course. Fishtown refers to Lower Kensington (a strip of land laid out by Captain Anthony Palmer in 1729) and the working class families who toiled the fisheries along the Delaware River between Frankford Avenue and York Street. After deindustrialization took hold of the area, like many rust belt cities, the Philadelphia neighborhood fell into poverty ⎯⎯ with the hearty working class stabilizing into their coastal customs. Joey Sweeney, “born in the slums,” he sings, found his way in 1970s Fishtown as best he could, forever haunted by the past. The Catholic faith tightening its grip on the community, he grappled with the moral conscious daily, “where even the idea that you might one day be a person of the world was like a crazy, delusional notion.”
“You realize that almost everyone has, at some sweet spot in their youth, some kind of agency where they might be able to begin to hop over the wall of their own circumstances,” he explains. That leads Sweeney, along with his band The Neon Grease, to break the chains on their debut single “Baptized in Vibe,” a romping, deliberately self-aware rebellion. Today, B-Sides & Badlands is honored to get our hands on the lyric video, a rather straightforward presentation of the song’s story. “Everybody except me knew I would survive,” he permits, drums spinning a thousand webs around him.
“Baptized in Vibe” is one of many single releases this year, sampling an album, but not sampling an album, all at the same time. He tells us, “Of the batch we’re recording now, there’s just a song or two left to track and some mixes to do. But the way we’re thinking of this right now is, it’s not so much an album we’re making — rather, we are recording on a “rolling admissions” type basis. As soon as we’re done this batch, we commence the next pretty much immediately, and yeah, it’ll all be collected at some point, but the larger idea right now is to put out a song a month for the next, however many, months. They all need to stand on their own.”
Below, Sweeney discusses other key tracks, giving up the physical fight and plans to tour the new tunes.
How did the new music begin and were you unaware of what was taking shape?
I made a record back in 2013 called ‘Long Hair,’ and, you know, there were things about it that I was happy with, and there were things that I weren’t. And when I thought about the kind of net result of it all in my head — “Joey, you made a kind of indulgent singer-songwriter record that seemed to be at some remove from any hope of an audience, and it received almost no promotion” — I thought, well, let me just try to do the opposite of that. With my own limited resources, mind you, but the opposite. So, we trimmed the band a little bit — we’d ballooned to 10 by that point, multiple strings and horns — and said, “yo, let’s do something that feels immediate, let’s remove that remove.” Once we honed in on the guitar/bass/drums/keys/sax leaner, meaner thing in the practice space, it felt more like, “hey, now we can really talk to people.” So, that resulting sound became the guiding impulse.
In terms of approach and stylistic ambitions, what do you want to achieve with this album?
I’m laughing a little as I type this — I didn’t want it to be an album. I wanted to be free from the idea of an album! I mean, everybody else is, why not us? The way we’ve been putting things out, though, one song at a time — there were things I did wanna do. I want to be more in the moment, and just release music on the regular, as opposed to going into the studio every two years, I’d like to do it every three months. And I did want it to be the kind of singles that would feel both stylistic — like really inviting in terms of the stylistic choices, like yeah there’s some cheeky stuff in here but it is also very heartfelt — and also coming from a place that was true in spirit. That has been the sum total of the ambition in its way — to make music and stay current in a way that was the opposite of my earlier experiences making and releasing music.
Through the process so far, what have been things you’ve learned?
Track as a trio first; listen with great intent not just to your own tracks but to those of your heroes for reference; be not afraid to speak in terms of cinema or color; find the sweet spot within your limitations; know that even a release is, now more than ever, an element of performance; be honest in all things.
Is there a thread line, over-arching story or consistent themes throughout the new music?
There is, but it is most definitely not one I came up with on my own. I believe the Stones of all people crystallize it best: “Love and sex and hope and dreams are still surviving on these streets.” I mean, I’m joking around, but that is not so very far off the mark. I loved the idea of the “street band” propositioned by people like Van Morrison and Ronnie Lane and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and this is my version of that.
What is so killer about your song “Black Ice” is the prominent use of saxophone. How did that one come together?
So, back to the ‘Long Hair’ band: We had ten people! Do you know what it’s like to get ten people to a band practice? We had to whittle down. We just had to. Nothing was getting done. And when we hit the wall and knew we had to make the band leaner, we realized that Kevin Bohannon was our secret emotional signature, on his alto saxophone. Add to that, I do not like to play or hear lead guitar. So, we took Kevin aside, and said, “look buddy, here’s the deal. You’re the lead guitar now. Only you’re playing a saxophone.” SO: All the emotion and push that the lead guitar would provide in any other band, well, that’s you now. And then we started playing.
Who is singing on background vocal, and how did that collaboration develop?
That’s Renée LoBue, who along with Ray Ketchem, who engineered and co-produced all of these songs, are in the great NYC band Elk City. We’ve all been friendly for many years, and like some of the best friendships, have dipped in and out of each other’s lives, connected by shared vibes. Renée lives right around the corner from Ray’s studio and wound up helping out on most of these tracks. After us knowing each other for over 15 years, this is the first time we’ve actually made music together. We loved it, and now, we’re thinking of ways to keep making music together.
In “Digital Light,” there’s the hook “in the digital light, I gave up the physical fight.” Is this song a conversation piece on our obsession with technology and losing touch with real, meaningful relationships?
It’s really about what we get in return. All of that other stuff has been written about and represented in the culture to no end — and really, to no avail, either. And that’s in there for sure, even though I’m no technophobe, not by a long shot, but what I really wanna look at, to regard for a moment, is that druggy power of the blue light and how it can just pull you out to sea. There’s like a dark languid glamour to that, too, this like relinquishing of yourself — the same thing that has actually powered all of these heroin narratives for years, as weird as that sounds. So, what if we started being honest about our tethering to all this crap and admitted that maybe we do this because we, on some messed-up level, actually like this? That some people want the void?
What inspired the song?
I was at the tail end of a bad relationship where I’d wake up and see my partner sadly anchored to the touch screen, its blue light casting about the sheets and the walls. I mean, everybody does this, but in the context of everything else at that moment, it bummed me out. There is just a native, built-in sadness to sitting in the dark with your iPhone. It’s just fucking sad. But also now, sadly universal.
“Son of a Loser” takes on a vast array of topics, from pride to society’s wastefulness. How did the lyrics develop?
For a few years now, I’ve been trying to write more universal songs but also different types of songs. I wrote “Son of a Loser” because I wanted to try writing a Johnny Cash-style song both in like the way it plays and also the emotional tenor — a kind of underdog tale that never loses its essential underdog-ness.
From what experience was this drawn?
Fathers. The experience of all men?
Do you have plans to tour this new music?
In a really limited and realistic way – but yeah, in 2018, we will at least play dates in the Midwest and up and down the East Coast with the band, but also I may do some solo stuff in bookstores and whathaveyou. Places like your own home kitchen is where I can really shine.
Photo Credit: Marie Alyse Rodriguez