The Successful Failures were little more than a moniker at one time, a category used to file away low key, stripped down solo songs by Mick Chorba, who was fronting New Jersey’s Dipsomaniacs at the time.
A few years went by, Chorba kept collecting members, and with the eventual end of his full-time group, the Successful Failures became his main focus and a real band.
Along with Rob Martin, John Williams and Ron Bechamps, the Successful Failures have put out four full-length albums over the years, Here I Am being the latest. Combining the elements of power pop and punk rock, the band has created a pretty devout following in the Northeast and could quite possible take over the rest of the country next.
Chorba spoke recently about the band, starting FDR Records and his quiet little song about shark attacks.
Innocent Words: At what point did the Successful Failures stop being a side project and become a full band of its own?
Mick Chorba: The original idea was for the name to be a moniker for little acoustic side projects, songs I couldn’t use with the Dipsomaniacs. When I recruited Rob Martin to play drums in 2006 it pretty much became a real band. We ran through the songs and tried out some bass players. Ron Bechamps came along, and that was it. John Williams came a few months later, after we had already recorded the first album. But things came together quickly, and we all felt like we had something special – plus it was fun, a lot of fun. Still is.
IW: So are the Dipsomaniacs officially over as a band? What happened?
Chorba: In 2009 the Dipsomaniacs played our last show – we had just put out our last album, Social Crutch, which we were really proud of. There’s not a big story here – we had been together for a long time [since 1994] and things seemed to just play out. Our longtime guitar player, Ron Mitchell, had left a few years earlier and Paul Crane from Bastards of Melody was filling in. It just seemed like it was time to stop. I am recording a solo album right now, and Tom O’Grady from the Dipsomaniacs is playing drums for me. Hopefully, some day down the road the Dipsos will get back together to play a show or record some songs. I’m kind of busy now, but if some worthwhile opportunity presents itself I think it might happen.
IW: What can you tell me about the songs on Here I Am?
Chorba: The songs on Here I Am come from a big batch of tunes I had written since recording Three Nights. I keep a writing journal and demoed a whole bunch of tunes. Many of the songs came from my experiences… books I was reading, places I visited, things people said. I throw these songs at the band and we hash things out – the band came up with the arrangements. Lots of songs fell to the wayside. What survived must be pretty strong, I like to think, stronger because we really put them through the wringer, trying out different tempos and configurations. John and I really focused on complementing our guitar parts and guitar tones. Ron really did an amazing job with the harmonies – John sang some two- three-part harmonies on a couple tunes which we are putting into our live set. All this collaboration slows things down, but I think the end product is stronger because of it.
IW: Can you humor me and explain the expression “Pig Tight Cattle High” and the origins of that song?
Chorba: I was on a bus tour at Gettysburg battlefield. The tour guide kept saying, in a great gravelly baritone voice, things like, “Johnny Reb came running over that hill…” “The creeks ran red with rebel blood…” Every time he pointed out the fences he called them, “Pig tight cattle high” – too tall for the cows to walk over and too low for the pigs to crawl under. I started jotting down his phrases, and it made it into a song essentially about batting down the hatches, something wicked coming this way. “There’s a malice in the wind” so watch out!
IW: How in the hell did you find out about Lester Stillwell – which is surprisingly beautiful, by the way – the focus of the song by the same name?
Chorba: I read a book called “Closer to Shore” – highly recommended. These shark attacks occurred in 1916 in New Jersey up the Manasquan Creek and were the inspiration for Peter Benchley in writing “Jaws.” I am fascinated by and greatly fear sharks. I love to swim in the ocean, but think every second about what may be lurking below. I pictured the townsfolk walking along the creek searching for the boy and the shark, carrying shotguns and pitchforks. To me it’s great material for a song.
IW: There are some obvious influences on your band – I can hear everyone from the Clash and Superdrag to Big Star and Cheap Trick. Is there anyone else you listen to that might not be as obvious?
Chorba: I’m a big Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash fan – love the old rockabilly. I also love the old blues masters, especially Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin Wolf. I tend to lean towards things that have an honest, natural feel to them. I shy away from anything too pretentious or overproduced.
I think you are right – the influences show up loud and clear. We love Nada Surf, Social Distortion, Supersuckers, Spoon. I am nuts about Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, the Shins. Also love the Kinks and Beatles. I’m a Who fanatic. We know the Superdrag guys and got to record with Don Coffey, the drummer – turns out he is a big Smithereens fan, who I like a bunch too.
Thing about this record is I didn’t try to force a certain style or sound. When Successful Failures play we pretty much play loud, thumping rock. Rob Martin, our drummer, hits hard, and he’s the engine that keeps us going. This album is pretty consistent with what we do playing live. In fact we recently did the whole album at a show, and it was awesome. “Lester Stillwell” is the only track that is really a departure, and that’s why we decided to tag that on at the end as a bonus track.
IW: What made you decide to start your own label?
Chorba: I had some bad experiences with other labels with the Dipsomaniacs – the music business is very shady. I wanted to put out music and didn’t want to wait around for someone else to do it. At the time I was also friends with a bunch of bands in the same boat, so it made sense. Every once in awhile the label started to take up too much time, so I backed off. What I really enjoy doing is writing, recording and playing music. The business end is a necessary evil, but not something I love much at all. If I start to spend more time sitting in front of a computer sending e-mails and such than I spend playing music, I jump back and rearrange my priorities. Music first.