Central New Jersey band Radio Fiction’s bassist and singer, Joe Chianese, says nothing in the band’s history compares to its current roster of vocalist Rachel Rocco, guitarist Michael Nabinger, drummer Matt Schifano, and himself — a Hamilton cop several decades older than anyone else in the band.
“We’re coming up on two years that we’ve been together. It’s been the most successful. We just gel,” says Chianese as the band prepares for a new year of making music, starting Friday, January 3, with a stop at Pete’s Steakhouse in Hamilton.
With each performer bringing influences that range from Bob Seger to Sheryl Crow to Bruce Springsteen and Amy Winehouse, the band can easily transition from Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” to the Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” and right into The B-52’s “Love Shack,” and then bust out a popular classic such as “Born to Run” or “Brown Eyed Girl.”
But tunes like a slowed-down version of Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” really set Radio Fiction apart.
Schifano says even though the band’s setup is traditional and simple — guitar, drums, bass, vocals — it produces full, loud music filled with sounds that might not even be there. “There are certain things you can do with a bass and a guitar. When people listen to it, they’re starting to hear this whole different part of a song that you’re not even playing. Because you did a note or two that implied it; now it’s starting to fill up,” he says.
While the band has appeared in Atlantic City and Cape May, it plays mostly local shows throughout Hamilton, where Schifano and Rocco live, and Bordentown, Nabinger and Chianese’s home. “There’s nothing like playing in your backyard,” Nabinger says. “I feel comfortable. It really is nice to know that even if it is a slow night at Pete’s, we still get packed because we know so many people and so many people like us.”
Chianese, 47, and Schifano, 23, were the first to meet. Although their Hamilton-area families knew each other, Chianese, a lieutenant with the Hamilton Township Police Department, first approached Schifano about joining up in an unexpected place: court. Schifano was involved in a car accident five years ago.
Chianese says he had recently picked up the bass for the first time in 18 years; he started playing as a kid after he and some neighborhood friends were inspired by acts like the Beatles and Bob Seger to start a band. He shelved the instrument after joining the Air Force — and eventually the police department — and starting a family. He returned to the instrument after playing the Rock Band video game with his sons, Joe Junior, 19, Michael, 18, Thomas, 15, and James, 14.
“My son said he wanted to play the guitar I had in the closet,” Chianese says. “I told him it was a bass guitar; it’s not what you’re looking for. He goes, ‘How come you don’t play it anymore?’ I didn’t have an answer. I pulled it out; I took it down to the shop; I got it fixed up. I started out and I was fumbling through it, but now it’s good. It’s affirming.”
Schifano had played in a few bands in the past, picking up the drums after a failed attempt at playing football and admitting, “I’m not the most athletic person. I wanted to quit, but my mom wanted me to do something structured.” So he did what any precocious 12-year-old kid would do and decided on “the most annoying thing I could possibly do,” drum lessons, and eventually joined the jazz, marching, and concert bands at Hamilton High School West. He also learned the acoustic guitar and started playing local solo and group gigs.
Chianese knew his area music history and saw the opportunity. “I met Matt in court, and I said ‘If you need someone to play bass,’” Chianese says. “He was like 18, and he looked at me like, ‘Who is this creepy old guy?’ He moved on. He was doing another band at the time.” Schifano, though, remembered Chinese’s name when his band at the time needed someone to fill in on the bass.
Schifano says he and Chianese have become familiar with each other’s playing styles and tendencies over the years. “Me and Joe have been playing together for at least five years,” he says. “Before I even met Rachel, he and I were just strumming guitars. I play acoustic guitar, too. Him playing bass, I got to listen and hear how he played. Jumping back on the drums, I know where he’s going, and he knows where I’m going.”
Meanwhile, singer Rocco, 23, and Schifano started dating. Three months into their relationship, Schifano realized Rocco had a talent. “He says, ‘Oh, you can sing. That’s cool. Do you want to be in my band?’” Rocco says. “I thought I’d give it a shot.”
Rocco had participated in musical theater and various choirs in elementary, middle, and high school, but this was her first band effort. The styles have their similarities and differences, the Hamilton West and recent Mercer County Community College graduate says. “This is still a performance, but I’m not with 20 people on stage,” she says. “I’m with three guys who I’m very close to. It’s just more personal as opposed to doing a [musical]. Not that they weren’t, but it’s a totally different experience. It’s still singing, but it’s two totally different aspects of performance, and I love that I’ve gotten to experience both.”
Rocco had been out of the performance circuit for a few years before joining up with the band. “After high school, I didn’t really do much,” she says. “This really brought me back to my roots. I’m able to do what I enjoy doing. It’s not just a hobby. It’s something I get a high off of almost. I really appreciate that.”
Guitarist Nabinger, 26, joined Radio Fiction after catching Rocco and Schifano perform as the Matt and Rachel Duo at a Dubh Linn Square open mic night (in Bordentown). Their musical paths kept passing and Nabinger — a Bordentown Regional High School graduate and Perrine Auto Group service consultant — eventually joined the band.
Each member of the band is multifaceted, which Nabinger says is a key to their ability to mesh. “I think what’s neat too is that you have a lot of overlapping relationships, a lot of overlapping aspects of each other,” he says. “Matt plays drums and guitar, so I can go to him and say this and that. It keeps moving forward. We all have our own little things. Rachel and I will talk about vocals. They’re back in the rhythm section. Joe and I are always going, ‘How can we make this sound bigger?’”
Nabinger adds that Chianese adds something that has nothing to do with music. “I also think it does help that Joe’s like the dad,” Nabinger says. “You get a different perspective, calmer heads.”
Chianese says that the age difference between him and the other three, all in their 20s, has never been an issue, “It’s crazy that there’s a 20-year age difference between me and these guys. When we’re together, all that disappears. It’s all about the music. The people that come and see us and jump up and down and dance and have a good time; they realize that this is what it’s all about.”
However, he sees an age situation with people attending performances for Radio Fiction and other bands. “We see people (age) 35 and up coming out for live music,” he says. “I rarely see anyone 21 to 30 unless it’s a friend. When we’re looking at our Facebook page, I’m checking the demographic of who likes us; our biggest demographic are middle aged men and women.”
Thinking back to his young band members, Chianese adds that he sees a familiar cycle circling back his way. “I always joke around,” he says. “I’m not going to have much more time with these guys. They’re getting to the point I was at, when I got a career; I got a family.”
But that is in the future, for now Radio Fiction is spending its time living by its motto: “Playing what the other guys don’t.”
Radio Fiction, Pete’s Steakhouse, 523 White Horse Avenue, Hamilton, Friday, January 3, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. 609-585-8008. Free. Visit www.radiofiction .net or search Facebook under “Radio Fiction.”