CJ Ramone keeps the Ramones spirit well and truly alive while coming into his own on upcoming release, Last Chance To Dance. We caught up recently to chat about the new record, signing to Fat Wreck Chords, life since the Ramones, family, songwriting and a whole lot more. So EXCITED to share this with you. CJ rules!
BIANCA: Your new single ‘Understand Me?’ is about to come out on Fat Wreck Chords…
CJ: It was actually supposed to come out in August. For ‘Reconquista’ my last record, I did the crowd funding thing, while it was really fun and it’s cool to be in direct touch with fans and offer them hand-drawn cartoons and lyrics, it was a lot of work! If I was a young upcoming 20-something in a band it wouldn’t have been so bad but, [laughs] the fact I have three kids and a whole other life, it was difficult to keep up with the crowd funding updates and shipping all the stuff out. It was such a great experience but I swore that I wouldn’t do it again.
When I got this new record ‘Last Chance To Dance’ recorded and was planning what I was going to do – I was going to do it myself, do my own label and find a distributor – Steve Soto who plays guitar for me, he’s from the Adolescents said, “I know a couple of guys over at Fat would be you be interested?” It was weird timing because I had gotten introduced to one of the girls that does press for Fat and she was going to work for me. When Steve said that I said, I’ve kind of got a hook in over there let me talk to Vanessa. I asked her if, Fat would be interested in putting out a pre-release single for me? She said, “Sure.” Then I asked if they might be interested in putting out my album? She told me to send the record over so I did, she got it to the people that make decisions over there and they liked it but they wanted to see me play first. We’d already been booked to play Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas this year. They came out and saw us and said they liked the record and thought we sounded great live, so they decided to put it out. It went from being out in August, my own release date, to now coming out November 25th. The single you’re listening to ‘Understand Me?’ was always going to be the first single. To have Fat getting it out there is such a relief for me, I just get to concentrate on shows and writing my next record now, which is nice. I forgot what a convenience it is to actually have a record company [laughs].
B: Looking at the artwork for ‘Understand Me?’ it seems pretty significant to me, a culmination of important things from your life; am I correct?
CJ: Yes, right [laughs]. It’s funny talking about this because my daughter is sitting right next to me and the idea for the art was born out of a conversation with her. When I thought about what we were talking about and what we were saying it became more introspective. It’s a balance between explaining something and asking somebody, do you understand what I am saying? Do you get it? Realistically, it’s a mix of a few different things. That’s the beauty about writing lyrics and music, you can write something about whatever you’re feeling but you know that you’ve written a good song when people hear it and they make it their own—to them it may be about something completely different. There’s a little bit of ambiguity to everything that I write, just because I like people to be able to do that; to take the lyrics and the song and make it their own. There’s some songs on Reconquista like ‘King Cobra’ that are obviously about me and my experiences but ‘Understand Me?’ is not like that. It’s ambiguous and written for people to make it their own.
B: One of the things that are featured in the artwork is a Tom Waits concert ticket stub…
CJ: Yeah [laughs]. I’m a huge Tom Waits fan. He’s been a big influence. You wouldn’t listen to my music and think I was inspired by him. He’s one of those guys, like the Ramones, that totally does his own thing and nobody is better at it than him. I appreciate everything he does, he’s one of my favourite artists from my own lifetime. A lot of the stuff featured in the cover art is really just random stuff. I just went up to my dresser and pulled a bunch of stuff off of it and then spread it all out. After we took the pictured and stepped back and looked at it, I realised it was actually a pretty cool interpretation of where I am from. It was one of those things you do in an art sense and then you look at it and realise it comes from a practical place and that it is based much more in your reality than you intended it. Even the keys from my pickup truck is on there! The Coca-Cola bottle cap on there is actually from the ashtray of my truck. I just happened to cleaned out my truck, I was out at the park with the kids riding bikes and just grabbed a bunch of garbage out of it, stuffed it in my pocket, pulled it out when I got into the house and thought the bottle cap might be cool to put in there. The blanket that is the background of the cover, when the Ramones did Lollapalooza, I did it on my motorcycle, I’d built a Harley. It was 1996, I didn’t ride with the band, I rode on my bike, that blanket was my bedroll. I’ve held onto it all these years, when we were trying to find something for the photo, I grabbed that, it was laying in the back of my pickup truck. The photographs featured in the art were on a bookshelf. It wasn’t really planned but I think it came out really cool.
B: I like that the cover art has a real organic feel to it and it gives us a little bit of an insight into your life and what’s important to you.
CJ: It’s like writing songs, sometimes you sit down and put pen to paper and the lyrics just come out. There’s not much deep thought or intention behind it, those are always your best songs. It’s like they’re already written and something triggers your subconscious and bridges your subconscious and your conscious and it spills out as a whole song. It’s the same when you create visual art. In your conscious mind it’s just random stuff you’re throwing together but in your subconscious there’s direction and meaning to it. It sounds really deep but honestly like I said, there wasn’t that much thought. Afterwards I realised it said a lot more than I ever intended it to say—that’s good!
B: It’s nice to see a side of you beyond the one that we see manifest in your music.
CJ: Thank you. I think the art goes well with the title “Understand Me?” It was not intentional for it to come together. I wish I could say that I was smart enough or creative enough to come up with it. The song is probably my favourite song on the whole record, it’s strong. On the B-side of the single is a cover of Black Flag’s ‘Rise Above’ with Dez Cadena singing backups and playing guitar. I’m really happy with it, it’s a really good introduction to what the record is about.
B: What made you choose to cover ‘Rise Above’?
CJ: On Reconquista I really covered a lot of what had gone on between me and the Ramones’ organisation and my personal life in general. It really is a dark record. The last song on the record ‘Aloha Oe’ I choose because it was a goodbye to that period of my life. It was a really rough time. I felt I’d gotten it all out and put it into music, I stepped packed and could take a breath and move on now. ‘Rise Above’ was recorded during those sessions for Reconquista. I actually recorded Reconquista three times. The third time was the charm, the one we actually released. Previously I just wasn’t happen with it. The burden is anything with a Ramone name on it, I really suffer and struggle a lot with that. I don’t want to put out something that is mediocre or half-assed. It’s a really big source of stress for me when I’m doing a record. ‘Rise Above’ was the last song I recorded in those sessions. It was coming out of that whole time period, I wasn’t going to bitch about it or talk shit on anyone or get negative about it like everyone else has, and I’m just going to ‘Rise Above’ it. Me and Dez have been friends for a long time and he was around then, I asked him to come down to the studio to record it and he said, absolutely. We did the entire song in one take! That song really is special, that whole session was special. There was such emotion and intention when we did that take.
B: Beyond knowing it’s got 12-tracks and hearing two of them – ‘Understand Me?’ and a live version of the title track I found on YouTube – from your upcoming LP ‘Last Chance To Dance’ there’s not too much information out there about it; what can you tell me about it?
CJ: In general it’s a much lighter, light-hearted record than Reconquista. There were a few lighter songs like ‘Shut Up’ on Reconquista but the rest of the record was dark, this new record is more fun. The beauty of coming from the Ramones into a solo career is, the Ramones covered so much ground musically. If you listen to ‘Wart Hog’ then ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ then ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ and ‘Commando’ they cover so much, from hardcore to pop. That gets me off the hook trying to pigeonhole myself or do one style of music. From playing with them over the years I learnt so much about writing songs and how to express yourself differently, it’s easy for me now to sit down and write a record that runs the gamut of musical styles—80s hardcore to 50s rock n roll songs. That’s one of the good things that came out of being in the Ramones. This record really does that. One of my friend’s Florian that owns the Ramones museum in Berlin is one of the few people that have heard the entire record, there’s a song on it called ‘Carry Me Away’ that he listened to and liked it but at the end of it he said, that’s a metal song. I was like yeah well, I came from a metal background when I was a kid. When I was younger I played in metal bands and was a he Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden fan.
On Reconquista there were songs that I left off because I thought stylistically they were too heavy. Those songs eventually made it to YouTube and lots of fans contacted me asking why the titled track, Reconquista, didn’t make the album. People telling me that it was a really great song and them not believing I didn’t put it on the album made me realise: if you write a song and its good you put it on the record. Regardless if it fits stylistically, a good song is a good song.
B: I saw a photo of you recording demos for ‘Last Chance To Dance’ while sitting at your kitchen table.
CJ: [Laughs] yeah. I’m a straight-up family guy now. I’m the stay-at-home dad. I record demos at night when the kids are getting ready for bed or in bed. I use Garageband on my laptop. Because two of my band, Steve and Dan Root live in California, that’s how we work. I’d do a song, send it to them in an email, they’d do their part and send it back. That’s how the whole record came together. Steve and Dan both wrote a song on the new record.
B: Which songs did they write?
CJ: Steve wrote ‘Won’t Stop Swinging’ and Dan wrote the music for ‘Cluster Fuck’. I’m not really much on being a solo guy, I really like being in a band and everyone contributing, everyone writing and singing. That’s where I’m from and the direction I want to move in. Reconquista was a personal statement from me, that was all me, I wrote everything except for the guitar solos and drum lines. This record, Steve and Dan are just incredible players and legends in their own right, the Adolescents have been around for a long time and are one of the classic California punk bands. I wanted them to be as much a part of it as I am. It’s always better when you work with other creative people that can bring their own experiences to the music. Whenever you hear that someone does a solo record and plays everything themselves, breaks away from the band they were with, I don’t think it’s ever as good as what they broke away from. The different personalities and styles, everyone throwing their thing into the pot really makes a great record. This record is the first steps towards us doing that and its part of why I’m really proud of this record.
Reconquista was a tough one to follow up. I felt like when I finally got that down with all of the special guests we had on there, I felt if that was my swan song, if that was the last thing I ever did, I’d be happy. When it got a good response and the Ramones fans expressed to me they like it I felt I could do another one. That one took a couple of years to write, with this new one I just got back into that groove. At this point I have the confidence and a good enough band behind me, I feel confident on stage again. It’s all come together really nicely. I’m not nervous at all when I get up on stage now. We do songs off both my records and a couple of Ramones ones, before it was mostly Ramones songs with a couple of mine. It feels good to get up on stage and do my songs and feel confident about the set. It’s really saying a lot.
B: Absolutely! You’re really coming into your own now and that’s wonderful.
CJ: [Laughs] I’m trying my hardest too! I really missed music for those couple of years that I was away, it was really tough. I went back and worked a regular job. I was down at Ground Zero for a while from there I started working as an operating engineer and in the meantime I was married and had kids, got divorced and got custody of my kids and took a job on Long Island so I could spend more time with my them. It was a really tough time, I didn’t think I’d be coming back to music. I always still played my guitar every night and wrote songs but I really didn’t think I’d get back on the road. I’m lucky enough I got remarried and my wife now is the one that said, hey why don’t you quit working and get back to music? [Laughs] I don’t know if she understood the monster she was creating when she said that. Now realistically, the last couple of years have been a culmination from the long road back from being very far away from where I am now.
B: It seems like to me that you have a really hard work ethic CJ which is very admirable. A while back I was reading the story online of how your son was diagnosed with autism and of you taking the steps that were super important to making his life the best it can be. I love that you don’t have that kind of ‘woe is me’ feeling sorry for yourself or the situation mentality that people sometimes embrace when faced with life challenges, you just get in there and do whatever needs to be done. Have you always had this mindset?
CJ: I don’t think I did. When I was younger I just floated, I never tried really hard at anything. It wasn’t until I went to the Marine Corps that I got focus, discipline and that attitude of no matter how hard it is or tough, the work needs to be done. If you don’t get up and do it, as an adult, no one is going to come and wipe your ass for you. If you don’t do it, it won’t get done. That’s the idea I’ve used throughout my life and kept in my head in all I do. It’s not easy, I’m not saying I get up every day and do it. There’s days when I wake up and I know it’s gonna be a rough one but I still get to it. When it came to my son especially, I knew his only shot at having any type of normal life was if I got up and did all the things that needed to be done; made sure he was in the right programs, stuff like that. I credit the Marine Corps for all of that. If I didn’t go to the Marine Corps I would have never survived in the Ramones. If I would have had a chance to be in the Ramones before the Marine Corps I’m sure I would have been kicked out. That’s not to say that I wasn’t well-behaved in the Ramones, I partied my ass off! Bottom line was though, when it came time to being on stage I’d do my job. There was one time we were up in Canada and I got really severe alcohol poisoning, I threw up on stage two nights in a row. At one point I sat down on the drum riser and played I felt that sick, even still I got through the gig. To me, if you want to do anything in with your life – I’m not even talking about success – if you want anything you do to count for anything that’s the attitude you have to have. There’s no excuses or “I’ll do it tomorrow”, that won’t get you anywhere. You especially notice it when you have kids, if you don’t do it for them there’s no one else to do it. Once I had kids it really solidified the mindset for me. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of how I turned down Metallica twice…
B: I have.
CJ: That’s no small thing! It wasn’t a tough decision, there was never a second thought though. I was really honoured to be asked and as a kid I loved that band, even now I still love their early stuff. Can you imagine any musician in the world that would have had the opportunity to play with the greatest underground rock n roll band of their time, the Ramones, then going on to play with probably the biggest heavy metal band of all time, Metallica. What a fairy tale career that would have been! The fact is though my son was diagnosed as autistic; I asked the doctor’s advice I said, I’ve been asked to join Metallica, I can have my own tour bus and afford for people to come take care of him and get the best doctors, what do you think? He told me that it wasn’t lost on him who Metallica is but your son needs to wake up in the same bed, eat the same meals at the same time of day, go to the same school and you and your wife need to tuck him in at night and be there for him every minute of every day. When he told me that, that was it. Of course Johnny [Ramone] didn’t understand why I would pass up a gig with Metallica…he never had kids though. Nobody knew this story for years, it was only a couple of years ago that someone called me up and said they had heard a rumour that I was asked to play in Metallica but turned them down. I said, yeah. Once that article came out I was contacted by lots of people asking if it was true. I never bragged about it. In some ways as a musician it’s kind of embarrassing to turn down such an unbelievable opportunity. My son needed me here though and that’s something you could never make up to your child, they can never recover from that. I couldn’t lay my head down at night thinking about that, it was an easy decision. I told Johnny: here’s the deal, I cannot do it. I would love to. There is no disrespect. Tell them I love them and in any other circumstances I wouldn’t even be on the phone to you, I’d be on a plane to California right now. Even after I said that Johnny called me a few weeks later and said, CJ the gig is yours! It’s not even an audition, they just want you to go out there to make sure you can handle it technically. I said, John, it aint gonna happen. I wanted to tell him, you’re fucking killing me right now, it was hard enough to say “no” once let alone a second time.
To me, I want to believe that there is a lot of guys out there that would do the same thing; that they’d look at the situation and think, if I pick up and leave now, my kid is not going to have the best life that he possibly could. I’d like to believe lots of guys would choose their kid over a good paying job. In the end that’s what it was, a good paying job. I knew what I had to do and did it.
B: I’d hope there are a lot of guys out there that would do that too. I have a nephew that has autism and at times at my day job I work with people that have autism so I understand your experience caring for someone with autism.
CJ: That’s great. Like you were saying before about having the attitude of getting stuff done, when I decided to have kids I took it seriously. When my son was first diagnosed I tried continuing to tour, once with my ex being at home, we had a friend living with us that would help her and I tried again to bring them on the road with me but I realised quick it wasn’t going to work. Once I made up my mind that was it. It feels good to make a decision that way, there aren’t a whole lot of decisions in your life that you can make where you know 100% you’re doing the right thing. When it comes to your kids, it’s easy to make the right decision, all you have to do is work out what’s right for them.
B: I noticed on your social media accounts that you post photos showcasing your gardening skills! What inspired you to grow your own produce and have chickens?
CJ: [Laughs] My wife and the kids wanted the chickens. As far as growing our own vegetables, that’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing but never had a big enough piece of property or motivation to do it. It’s cool though because I’ve been able to teach my kids a skill, to grow your own food and responsibility. They have to go out and water everything and when everything starts to grow they have to go out and pick the tomatoes, broccoli and lettuce. It’s the same thing with the chickens, now that they’re laying eggs the kids understand that we can get eggs right in our own yard. It all ties into other lessons too, like what’s in your stuff that you buy at the store. To me as a parent you’re always looking at ways to get your family to bond. Growing our food and looking after chickens has really worked in that way. They really enjoy it and they appreciate the time and work they’ve put in to make it happen. When your hard work has tangible results like that you learn more from it.
B: You mentioned before that you worked at Ground Zero; what was that like?
CJ: That was a rough time period. I saw stuff down there that I will never forget, it’ll be in my head forever. For years I’ve hung out in New York City and partied, I’ve had some of the best times of my life here, I felt like it was payback. I got in there October/November directly after it had happened. My dad was down there even before I was! He was down there working on the “Bucket Brigades” he was down in the pit when they were still thinking they’d find people alive. It’s something that has stayed with me. It’s a very strange thing. Here in the States we’d never been attacked by a foreign power, we had stuff during World War II with the Nazi subs sinking ships of the coast but we’d never been attacked in a war. For it to happen in the city I spent a lot of time in as a kid, to see the damage, death and destruction firsthand and be part of the process of cleaning it all up, it helped in some ways but at the same time there’s stuff I wish I didn’t see. You can’t unseen things. It’s like guys that go to war, they leave with stuff they wish they didn’t have to. It’s definitely not something I want my kids to see or experience.
B: All the men on your dad’s side of the family have been in the Defence Force, right?
CJ: My dad and his eldest brother were Navy, his other brother was Army, his other brother actually worked for a private security firm. Everyone has all served in one way or another.
B: Did you look up to your dad when you were young?
CJ: Yeah, absolutely! He’s a real character my dad [laughs]. He really had a pretty wild life, he’s still alive too, and definitely the toughest man I have ever met in my life. At the same time he is a really good-hearted guy too.
B: Over on your twitter you wrote that you’re an “eternal student”. Who have been some of the biggest teachers for you in your life?
CJ: I’ve been lucky through the years to have some really solid mentors. My dad was a real wild man, he hung out with outlaw bikers and was a real street tough guy. I learnt a lot from him and I also learned a lot of what not to do from him. Along the way different people have come into my life that were there at just the right time and taught me great stuff. I had a teacher when I was a kid that recognise some kind of talent in me and really helped direct me off of a bad path while I was in school. There was an older Jewish guy I worked for that had been through World War II and had seen a lot. He was a really solid, cool guy; he was one of those people that had unending patience [laughs]. He really went out of his way not just to teach me about the job but also life lessons and philosophy in general. Johnny Ramone was another one, he was a huge mentor and teacher for me. He really changed me fundamentally in a lot of ways, he opened my eyes to a lot of stuff. My wife now, we were friends for seventeen years before we married, we’ve been together nine years now, she’s taught me more about myself than what I’ve learnt in the fifteen years before that. I’ve always looked and paid attention to what went on around me, I’ve always looked for the people that were smart and dealt with things, not necessarily in the most common way but people who dealt with things in their own way. It takes a lot more patience and wisdom to learn to deal with things in a fair and decent way. It’s easy to go along with the crowd and dismiss everything and everybody and do things by the book but it’s a lot more difficult to consider all the view points, all the circumstances and make your decisions based on that than it is to go with the cliché or stereotype. That’s the kind of people I’ve always tried to seek out and learn from. Even the people that I’ve been wronged by or a relationship has ended badly, you learn from those people what not to do. When you understand that and really practice that you are so far ahead of how most people do things. When you realise that there is knowledge in every situation and that approach, you’re gaining wisdom. These days we’ve sacrificed wisdom for being clever and quick witted. At some point that is not going to work anymore. Wisdom will always work because it’s a universal understanding of how the world works and people think…just how things happen in general. Wow! That’s incredibly deep [laughs].
B: And that’s great! I think a lot of people these days just don’t have something basic as respect, respect for each other, respect for the planet, respect for their property and respect for themselves. The lack of respect in society in general is something I always struggle with.
CJ: Yes, absolutely! I’m really lucky to have been around a lot of native people in my life. My dad is part Native American and part of his family live on a reservation up in Canada. Over the years I’ve made friends with people from different tribes here in the States. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with native people in all the places that I’ve travelled to. A lot of my views and opinions are based on really old knowledge because of my interactions with all those native people. That gives me more peace of mind and confidence in the things that I do because my decisions are made with those things in mind, that type of wisdom in mind. I think when you get comfortable with your own decision making process and your own view of the world and you feel comfortable where it comes from and what it’s based in, it really does make it easier to do the right thing in almost any situation.
B: Why is music important to you CJ?
CJ: Music has always be a release for me, from the first time I ever got on stage in front of people. I love music, I love writing songs, recording and being in a band but the thing that I love the most is the release I feel when I’m on stage…especially now. Back in the day there was all kind of things I did to get my “ya-yas” out that usually involved some kind of life threatening situation [laughs]. Now more than ever I appreciate getting on stage and letting loose. I don’t party anywhere as much as I used to. I don’t have the time to go out and ride across country on my motorcycle like I used to. There’s a lot of things I used to do to get it out of me and now playing live is more important than ever. There’s nothing else in my life I get that feeling from. There really is nothing else for me like music. It would be easier for me to give up sex [laughs] than for me to give up playing live. It’s that important to me and I enjoyed it that much!
B: Is there anything else you’d like to raise awareness of, or that’s important to you?
CJ: What we were talking about before, people’s awareness of how they treat each other on a daily basis. If you take a step back and understand what the things that you say and do to people have on others, if you really understood it and gave it thought I’m sure you would treat people around you a lot better than you actually do. I know there are people out there that do understand it and get it. For the most part, most of us are so caught up in trying to get through every day that taking that step back before we say something crazy or do something bad is a really difficult thing to do. All it takes is a little bit or presence of mind and when you understand how good it feels to do the right thing, it becomes addictive. I feel it’s something that’s lost because we’re all pushed to get ahead and push to be ultra-successful and make the most money we can. How we treat each other isn’t even considered by a lot of people for the most part in every day interactions. We’re pretty much trained to overcome all of our natural instincts to be decent to one another because we don’t want to be taken advantage of. I’m not talking about either if someone comes up to you on the street with ill intent, I’m not talking about being blind and turning the other cheek…the best way for things to happen is on an individual basis. If I’m growing vegetables in my yard and getting eggs from my chickens and you have a service to provide, like if I need work done on my house, you come over knock it out and I send you home with eggs and vegetables to get you through the next couple of weeks – if we have that interaction, that’s how great societies are built. It’s not coming in and killing everyone that doesn’t believe what you believe, it’s not built by enforcing rules and some kind of political structure, it don’t work that way. It hasn’t and never will. The way that it has to happen is that the average person to understand that their power, their ability to control their surroundings is how they interact with the people around them. It comes from supporting your own local community and getting together on projects that effect your life and the people in your community directly. The native cultures have survived way longer than ours, ours will collapse under its own weight [laughs]. The way things are going now it could happen real soon. The way native cultures lived before outside interference was way more organic and worked so well because it wasn’t a big political structure or someone’s manifesto everyone was following to the word. The way the world is right now, is a reflection of how we treat each other. I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I know things have to start somewhere and that starting point is at that really basic level with us.
B: Will you be bringing your, Last Chance To Dance world tour to Australia?
CJ: Yep! We were almost coming in November but then I found out NOFX would be there around the same time [laughs] that would crush us! We’re talking to a promoter now to see what we can work out. Australia is my own pet project for us to make it there.
**And if this in-depth interview wasn’t enough there’s even more of this chat featured in my Conversations with Punx project. CJ talks to me about spirituality, creativity and more!**
Be excellent to each other,
*All photos courtesy of CJ’s fb/IG. CJ art by me.