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Interview with Smoke Ring Days
What got you into music, and if you hadn't gotten into music, what would you be doing today?
Rick: For me, I was always drawn to creative things. Even as a kid in grammar school, I liked art and music. I was probably the only kid who actually paid attention in art class and music class. I found it interesting. So, I would say if I wasn't doing music, I would probably be doing something else in the arts. I spend a lot of time doing computer graphics now, but I would probably be doing different kinds of fine arts, as well, or maybe architecture. Something along those lines. Anything creative.
Cindy: According to my mom, I wrote my first lyrics when I was three years old, complete with meter and rhyme, so music has always been the thing I was drawn to from the time I can remember. My dad had a beautiful, resonant voice and traveled in his school choral group growing up, my mom got my sister and me our first Beatles LP (though she swears it was for her), and my grandma would buy us records all the time when I was a little girl, which she prescreened in a listening booth at Woolworth’s. I found a connection in music that I didn't find in any other area of my life, and spent a lot of time singing along to the radio to our cat, Smokey, who was my captive audience. It’s been an incredible gift: singing, writing and recording our music, which I studied in college. If I didn't do music, my focus would be on reaching out to those in need in my community; that’s actually been my day gig for years, as a licensed social worker. The import of being good and caring human beings in this world is something Rick and I feel strongly about incorporating in our music, focusing on how we can all be compassionate and supportive of each other.
What do you like to do when you're not playing music, and how does that influence your creativity?
Rick: Well, for me, sometimes when I'm not doing music, I guess I am still doing music, even if I'm not actually sitting in a room or in a studio, playing. Musical ideas just come to me, especially rhythm patterns. I don't know why, but whenever I walk, I’ll start hearing them. Sometimes, I just start creating music in my head, even if it's not a time I’ve set aside to say, “well, I’ve got to create something.” It just seems like it's always flowing through me. Even if I turn that part of me off, I’m probably looking at visual art. I like to look at art sites on the internet, and I'm always interested in discovering new artists and people like that. Visual artwork definitely feeds the music, sometimes enormously. One of our songs, ‘Neon Nocturne,’ was inspired by Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks.’ Even as a kid, I always loved that painting. I used to have a Hopper calendar in my room, and every month there’d be a different painting, obviously. I remember sitting in front of the keyboard, looking at ‘Nighthawks.’ The mood it evoked was the impetus for our song. Also, for our track ‘Surreal No. 9,’ in order to capture what we were looking for, Cindy and I sat down with a book of surrealist works, picked out ones we particularly liked, especially Salvador Dali and Marie Toyen, and incorporated a couple of lines describing each painting into the song’s lyrics.
Cindy: I think taking downtime from creating can actually foster creativity; as in music, where the dynamic is created by a combination of sound and silence, for me, building rests in is important. I kind of wait until inspiration strikes, usually at a quiet time when I’m alone in my car or taking a shower. Alternately, if Rick gives me something and says ”let's work on this,” I’ll write on demand until we have something we both like. When not working on music, I spend time with friends and family, go to hear live music and see movies, binge watch way too much television, and read. I love to travel and eat out. Just your average stuff, but things that nourish me, body and soul, which I can then bring back and incorporate into our music.
How long has your band been around?
Rick: A long time - since the ‘80s. When we started, it was already post punk and kind of at the end part of New Wave. It was 1984. Synth music was still going strong on the British end, and bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Tears for Fears were popular. Then came the ‘90s and the grunge era. So we've been doing it long enough that we've seen a lot of styles come and go. We’ve been through a lot of changes, and probably have added things that were ‘of the time’ to our own music, too. I think it's natural that, in every era, you're going to extract the things you like. For example, when we began writing and recording together, drumming was starting to get different, especially in the world music Peter Gabriel and Sting were putting out, so that sparked my interest – over the years, we have incorporated a lot of world music elements into our recordings.
Cindy: When we began writing together, I was working at an indie record store, exposed to a diverse cross-section of music, including new domestic and import releases. A few years later, I had the opportunity to travel back and forth to London a good bit, so I would pick up the latest ‘NOW That’s What I Call Music!’ compilations and bring them back for us to listen to, allowing us to keep abreast of what was happening in the UK major label market. As a result, a lot of the things we did when we first started out were synth-oriented, as it was very big in Europe at the time, and we were influenced by that.
Rick: Then, little by little, we started moving into other ground, using a more guitar-based sound. Synth music wasn't as popular, as far as record companies and radio people were concerned; it had its time, and people just weren't really interested in it anymore. So it was time to explore other things.
Where are you based out of, and how did that that influence your music?
Rick: Well, we're in New York and, depending on the era, at certain times, New York was really the epicenter of arts and culture for music in a lot of ways. There were so many clubs, so many kinds of music happening; it was very inspiring just to walk down Bleecker Street in the Village, so many interesting things to see. You couldn’t help being influenced by it. We used to go everywhere, from the Bottom Line to Café Wha?, Kenny's Castaways and the Bitter End - just so many people, including us, playing so many different types of music in such a small area. Now, I think most people would say the same thing: with the Internet, you are no longer solely impacted by what’s happening in your area; you get your influences from the entire globe. Now, ‘local’ is what you see on your phone or tablet. That’s your neighborhood.
Cindy: I’d also like to give credit to the Island, which is where we grew up, about 35 miles outside of the city. While the city was a big influence on us, as Rick said, there’ve been a lot of happening musicians who got their start here: Lou Reed, Vanilla Fudge, The Young Rascals, Blue Öyster Cult, Billy Joel, Harry Chapin, the Stray Cats, Pat Benatar, and Elliot Easton from the Cars all became known artists, and there are so many talented others who simply never got a commercial break. We used to go see the Good Rats, a great band and one of the few that did their own material, and Twisted Sister all the time. And My Father’s Place, here on the Island, was a club that broke so many incredible national and international acts. It was easy to be inspired with so much going on just a quick car ride or easy train trip away. But I have to agree with Rick: now, with the internet and satellite radio, everything is at your fingertips. So influences are far less regional with so much access to a broad spectrum of music.
How did you come up with the name of your band, and what does it mean to you?
Cindy: One night we sat on the bed in Rick’s room in his childhood home and just went over pages and pages of song names and ideas, looked at all these lists of possibilities. And we decided we liked ‘Smoke Ring Days,’ which we took from Neil Young’s song with Buffalo Springfield, ‘On the Way Home.’ The imagery and feel of the lines ‘I went insane, like a smoke ring day when the wind blows’ were so abstract and emotive; we really loved it. We pluralized it simply because there’s two of us.
Rick: Yeah, I think it's pretty. I still like the name. Sometimes, people pick names at one point in their life and then, 10 or 20 years down the road, you wish you had a different name, but I still like it. I agree it has an interesting sense about it.
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
Rick: Well, I would say that, whether you're playing for 100 or 200 people in a smaller club that really love what you're doing or several thousand people at a college or university, for me, the audience makes the show. I can remember being booked at Yale [University in New Haven, Connecticut] one Halloween, huge old campus and an enormous, beautiful room filled with students on a Saturday night. The band started playing and the place was like, holy sh*t, ready to explode. A truly memorable gig.
Cindy: Playing in Rockaway Beach, the place the Ramones immortalized, especially at this club called Dingy Dan’s, was always a great head. We couldn't have felt more exhilarated or more special, because people loved us just for the fact that we were bringing them music. The place was always packed out; it was a real local institution and they were pretty lenient on their admission policy: we used to joke that all you needed to get in was a school bus pass or a note from your mother. But everyone knew and looked out for each other. It was exciting to play for people who were elated to have you there, a great thing to be that conduit, connecting an audience with music they wanted to hear. That feeling of reciprocal joy really reinforced my decision to pursue a career as a musician.
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
Rick: Back in the day, a great venue for me was Hot Dog Beach in the Hamptons; it was outside with thousands of people there, as far as the eye could see. Just a real different vibe to be onstage on a sunny day, playing outside and watching people having fun on the beach.
Both: Where would we want to play? Wembley!!
Rick: Because it's such a vast thing. Obviously, there's places that don't exist anymore, so you can't do it. I think it would have been interesting to be able to play Winterland [Ballroom in San Francisco].
Cindy: The Bottom Line [in Greenwich Village]. It was such a special place for me, that little 400-seat club. I saw so many, many amazing songwriters and artists there, both those I knew and others I was being turned onto for the first time. I saw Barenaked Ladies there twice, before they broke big in the States, and was totally blown away by the caliber of their musicianship and incredible vocals. It was just such an intimate venue, always an inspiring experience. Everyone laid back and looking forward on the line outside, waiting to get in; Lou Reed stopping to talk to friends, walking his dog and looking like a hip college professor. Just a great downtown vibe. It would truly have been an honor to play there.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
Rick: That would be hard because there's so many people I like. But I guess if I had to really trim it down, maybe the Grateful Dead. It would have been nice to be able to play with the original Grateful Dead, when Jerry was in the fold. And Pigpen. That would be cool. Pink Floyd would be fun to have in there. And the Who. Those would be the bands I would like to play with, because that music probably speaks the most to me; it’s interesting and adventurous, and the lyrics are thought-provoking. That’s the music I like the best, so it would be exciting to play with a lineup like that.
Cindy: My holy trinity is Pete Townsend, Todd Rundgren and Van Morrison – for me, the head, heart and soul of music. Pete's writing is so incredibly intelligent and the Who is just so visceral and has long been my favorite band. Todd, to me, is a musical genius. He has so much heart, puts out such a good vibe and message, and has, over the years, continually evolved creatively. And Van, because his music moves me and he sings with such soul. That’s my dream ticket – and, since it’s a dream, all four members of the Who are alive and happy. If you’re going to dream, dream big. Oh, and one more: Counting Crows. I would love to play with the Crows not only because they’re terrific musicians with an innovative and varied song catalogue, but because they go out of their way to turn their audiences on to bands that may not otherwise have been on their radar. I really respect the fact that they are always looking to support and promote the work of fellow musicians – just beautiful. I think that's something not enough musicians do, and all musicians should. God knows, no one else is clamoring to do that for us.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band, and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
Rick: I would say it depends on the era. In the mid ‘60s to ‘70s, I would have said go full force, do not make a backup plan. Put everything you've got into this, because there's a good chance you can get somewhere; even if you don’t get a record deal, you could still make a living and be just as happy as a working musician. If it was going into the ‘80s, I would have advised to put effort into it, but keep a backup plan in mind, because things changed and didn’t always work out. In the ‘90s. I’d have said if you don't have a friend or relative in the music industry, just do this for your own personal fulfillment; otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment. Today, I would say if you're a teenager or in your early 20s, you might want to give it everything you've got until you get to a certain age, then rethink where you’re at in terms of how to best proceed. You probably have just as much of a chance in music as you would doing something else anyway, so you might as well try it.
Cindy: My cousin's kid was telling us about a friend who has a band and decided to take a gap year after college graduation to just play and tour. In a year from now, he's planning to assess if this is something he truly wants to commit his life to, and whether or not that’s viable. I think that's such a great approach: to give yourself the gift of time. If I could go back to my younger self, I’d tell her to have more confidence, more faith in what you do. Don't be afraid to fail. Explore all avenues. And don’t be afraid to utilize connections. I think I spent a lot of time being afraid to use the ones I had because I didn't want to seem like I was exploiting personal relationships, which anyone who knew me would have known was not in my vocabulary. But I think I erred on the side of caution too often, as I was afraid of being perceived that way, and passed up on opportunities because of that. Frustratingly, it is about who you know as well as what you know, so use both those things and play, play, play. Try everything, and if that doesn't work, try everything else. Just keep on doing what you're doing and believe in yourself.
If you could go back in time and give yourselves advice, what would it be?
Both: Don’t let other people's expectations of you shape who you become. Stay clear to your vision as much as you can. There will always be people willing to take you down, who cause you to doubt yourself, Realize it's less about you and more about where they’re at. If you feel this is something you were meant to do and have the ability to try, go for it. What's the worst that can happen? It doesn't work out. And then you do something else, try different things. There are so many ways to make a life as a musician!! Also, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. You don't have to be the most beautiful, the most polished, the most whatever the media is currently touting. You just need to be the best version of yourself, and then try to find a place for that. And surround yourself with the right people. We’ve been very, very fortunate in having each other to work with all these years; there’s nobody we’d rather work with than each other. Emotionally and creatively, we speak the same language, and that's been a huge gift.
Of your songs, which one means the most to you and why?
Both: ‘Prisoner’ is a song that, for us, holds incredible power, both musically and lyrically. It’s about living with mental illness, a challenge we're very sensitive to, as we both have people in our personal lives who struggle with psychiatric compromise. Mental health issues are something so many in our families and communities have felt compelled to suffer in silence for fear of stigmatization, creating barriers to treatment that have resulted in unnecessary and avoidable quality of life compromise and loss of life. We need to follow the lead of those working to increase awareness and improve access to appropriate, ongoing care, in order to normalize and support all those living with mental illness with expertise, empathy and compassion.
Cindy: Another composition, which is kind of like a spoken word song, is ‘William and Marie’s Prayer,’ which is named for my dad and Rick’s mom. It’s a very ethereal piece about the welcoming embrace of those who await us in the afterlife, and how our loved ones live on symbiotically through our experiences, providing solace and sharing joy.
Which songs are your favorite to play, and which get requested the most?
Both: What we enjoy playing is influenced by which songs people enjoy the most. Lately, we’ve been getting good numbers on Spotify for ‘Peace in My Soul,’ ‘Things Are Gonna Get Better,’ ‘Prisoner,’ and a new one, ‘The Gathering Storm,’ is gaining traction, too, so it’s terrific to know people are responding to them. ‘Peace in My Soul’ and ‘Things Are Gonna Get Better’ really send positive messages out there. Life can be tough, and the world is hard enough for so many people, for so many different reasons. It's not easy to keep hope alive sometimes. So we try to bring some positivity into what we do, to be where people are at while focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel, to put out a message of optimism and togetherness to lessen people's isolation and let them know they're not alone in their feelings.
What is the creative process for the band, and what inspires you to write your music?
Rick: The creative process, for us, can be a handful of things. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting at my drum set, and tapping out a beat starts a chain reaction. Or, it could be the other end of the stick, when Cindy comes down with some lyrics, and we start with a totally blank musical canvas and build the music to the words. Other times, we’ll have a piece of music that's almost all done, and we write the lyrics to fit the meter and feeling the chord changes and overall dynamic evoke. Many times, it's a little of both. You have various components, some riffs here, a chord progression there, the basic groove is down, but you still need a melody or a chorus. Some of our best songs started off by accident, with me tuning my guitar and playing two chords, Cindy liking the sound, and us building all around those two basic chords.
Cindy: In a way, it's kind of like sex. There are lots of things you can do to achieve satisfaction, and there’s no one way, you know? [laughs] Rick keeps a notebook and jots down song titles and topics he's interested in us writing about, and I scribble things on napkins and squares of paper, throw them in a bag and bring them over to our studio, where we work together. I’ll also use my mobile to record things, which is helpful if I get an idea and am someplace I don’t have a pen handy. Late at night, when everyone else is asleep and it's quiet, things will come to me, so I’ll sing them into the phone and record them as a voice memo, type lyrics into the Notes feature. When we're ready to write something new, we'll ask each other: “What do you have?” and then share ideas and see what sparks us both.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
Both: We feel fortunate that we came up in the time we did. We’re children of the 60s and 70s, a time of social movements and much – but not enough - change. And while there was violence inherent in those transitions, there was also a great deal of hope, too, which we sometimes feel is, sadly, lost to far too many today. We kind of have that hippie/post-hippie mentality of ‘things are going to get better’ and ‘we can make it happen,’ because if not us, then who? And so we try, as one of our songs says, to ‘light a single candle in the dark’ and hope those who hear that message will, perhaps, find their way a little more easily to better moments, better days.
Do you ever have disagreements in your band, and how do you get past them?
Rick: Usually not tremendous disagreements. Most of the time, it’s like “let's do this twice,” “no, I think we should do it once.” If the other person has a valid reason why, one of us will say, “okay, I get it. You're right. That makes sense.” If it's something that's not going to make or break a song, we’re flexible. We’re pretty much in sync most of the time, and when we’re not, it’s smaller issues, really. Plus, it’s not satisfying knowing that the other person doesn’t like it. Sometimes, we do make alternate versions and put them both out, which makes each of us happy.
Cindy: We’re also really great friends, so that helps. This is so important to our lives, and so much of our emotional energy goes into writing and recording music, so each of us wants the other to be satisfied with the end product. We've been writing together for decades and, like in any long-term relationship, you’re going to have moments of dissension. But as long as joy and satisfaction are the overriding things, that's okay; you simply ride it out and move on.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
Rick: Well, for the short run, we’d like people to be aware of our new single and video, ‘Peace in My Soul.’ It really resonates with us. We feel strongly that music can be an amazingly effective tool to help people make sense of life in this complex world, and to find peace, hope and comfort, starting within themselves, so that’s kind of the message the song puts out there, that to have the simple things in life that help us get through the more complicated parts are what we all really need to help us feel whole. We're also in the midst of putting a new album together, a longer one with a lot of singles that were never really on a proper LP. We’re looking forward to packaging these songs and putting everything in one place, so to speak, to make them easier to access.
Cindy: We're getting old, so listen to us now – we could go at any time!! [laughs] Seriously, this interview has been a great opportunity, as it’s really nice for us to be able to let people know what we’re doing, and getting that out there is always the hard part. So thanks much for reading this, and hope you check out our music, too. For now, Rick and I are wishing you hope to your heart, joy to the world, and peace in your soul!!
How can your fans best keep up to date with you? Any socials you want people to check out?
Both: For more info on what’s going on with Smoke Rings Days, please visit us at the following sites: