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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the August 28, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Billy Keeps on Trucking Thru Central Jersey
Route 1 commuters have been known to call central New
Jersey’s transportation corridor many things, but few have been heard
to call it "that long, lonesome U.S. 1 Highway."
On the debut CD from Billy, the New Brunswick-based independent rock
quartet, that’s exactly what you’ll hear. Featured on the new album
is "US 1," a bluegrass-tinged rock ballad with a hummable
refrain that tells the story of a burnt-out trucker who leaves his
troubles behind and heads south on Route 1, never to be seen again.
Billy, known for its musical patchwork of rock, lyric harmony, and
something it calls "punk bluegrass," plays at Triumph Brewing
on Nassau Street on Friday night, August 30. The band, which released
the album "Music for the Two Cycle Engine" in May, has called
2002 "the year that Billy breaks out."
Billy formed in 1996, but three Billy members have played together
since 1989 when they met as students at Rutgers’ Cook College.
Billy’s members are Brian Szura, Rich Bochkay on guitar, bass,
and vocals; John Erbrecht on guitar, organ, and vocals; and Eric
on drums. With the exception of the classically and jazz-trained
Armour (who has drummed for Joni Mitchell among others), all Billy’s
musicians play multiple instruments and often trade instruments in
the course of a single set. The group’s songs are written
by Szura and John Erbrecht.
Szura and Bochkay, members of Rutgers Class of ’92 and ’91
started their playing together as Seigobillies, a quartet they formed
in the late ’80s. Named for the white, cactus-like Sego lily,
called themselves a "seminal punk bluegrass band." But once
they found they were being mistaken for a Dead cover band, the new
quartet simplified its name in favor of just plain Billy.
"We all have different musical interests and it works when we
come together," says Szura, whose band has been credited for its
rich vocal harmonies, heartfelt and vivid lyrical storytelling, and
melodic pop rock (with punk and bluegrass lurking in its roots). The
new CD’s "Pocket Change" features a driving beat and
vocal harmonies. There’s also a slow ballad in "Bethlehem."
Some have compared Billy to the old Squeeze and to the Police.
Multi-instrumentalist and Billy’s primary lyricist Szura says his
song "US 1" dates back to his undergraduate years at Cook
College when he spent time in the school’s demonstration gardens.
In the same way a traditional bluegrass song might invoke rivers,
Billy invokes traffic. Szura recalls how the college grounds were
within sight of U.S. 1’s relentlessly moving stream of traffic.
"I used to find myself hiking around in the woods around Cook
College," says Szura, "and when you’re walking over Route
1 on the overpass, you really get the feeling of a torrent of cars
rushing past, going somewhere else."
Billy’s song "US 1" begins with a twang of
backed by banjo. That banjo sound comes from Szura and it’s just one
of many instruments he has picked up over the years. He also plays
bass, sax, and accordion.
"I fall in love with certain sounds. I just loved the sound of
banjo and as a rhythm instrument, banjo lends a lot to the music,"
he says. Szura’s latest love affair is with the Uilleann pipes
ill-awn), a type of Irish bagpipes. After 20 years, he’s finally
a set and is studying with a musician in Boonton. He says he’ll get
out the pipes for the Triumph gig.
The band’s self-financed "Music for the Two Cycle Engine"
was produced with Jersey rock stalwart James Mastro. All 11 tracks
are originals except for the cover of Rancid’s "St. Mary,"
reinvented in Billy’s signature "punk bluegrass" style.
Says fellow songwriter Erbrecht, "When one of us brings an idea
for a songs to the rest of the band, we jump on it like a pack of
rabid dogs and make it our own."
"Bluegrass songs lend themselves to a punk rock feel because of
the rhythm and the drive," Szura explains. "We’ll take some
old bluegrass covers and punk up the beat." The punk label also
fits when the band, instead of singing, hurls the song lyrics directly
at the audience.
Music is a vocation for all four men, now in their 30s, who perform
together at least twice a month. "We’ve been on the scene for
a long time," says Szura. "We have expectations, but we’re
also just happy to play. We’ve been pretty solid in the local music
scene, and now we’re hoping to get out music out there more."
Promotion has never been a priority, but they’re trying harder now
to make a name outside central Jersey, Szura explains.
"Seigobillies used to get some pretty big crowds and I’m still
liable to be recognized when I’m walking around New Brunswick,"
Like Johnny, the truck-driving hero of the song "US 1," all
four of Billy’s band members know about the old 9-to-5. Szura works
for the New Jersey’s Pinelands Commission, a regional planning agency.
Bochkay and Erbrecht both work in computing; Bochkay most recently
with Geographical Information Systems, and Erbrecht as a graphic
Drummer Armour works for Emcore, a computer chip manufacturer.
At the start of "US 1" our long-distance trucker is working
the straight and narrow.
Driving down US 1, Johnny’s on the road
Driving hard to make the deal
…and he’s thinking about
Memphis and his piece of American pie.
Soon Johnny learns what we already knew: "Poor boy, life sure
is tough!" Them comes a yodeling refrain, the song’s most
part, that goes something like: "Goin’ around a-yahoo, goin’
each day… I’m sick and tired and lackadaisical."
After Johnny’s disappearance there are various theories, some good,
some bad, on his whereabouts. None is more potent than Joe the Plumber
who "thinks that he’s buried with Jimmy Hoffa under the fifty
yard line down there in Giant Stadium."
"US 1" is a song with a message — a message belted out
by Szura in some final bars that Route 1 commuters are bound to
"When you go down US 1 remember Johnny. And remember: Wherever
you are in life, there ain’t no goin’ back!" It’s a message the
band is taking to heart.
— Nicole Plett
$5. Friday, August 30, 10:30 p.m.
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