To borrow from a song by Paul Simon, the Cryptkeeper Five is “still getting in the van after all these years.”
The Trenton-based group is marking its 20th anniversary of hitting the road (in a van) to bring its punk rock/horror punk/Jersey rock sound to loyal fans here on the East Coast, around the United States, into Canada, and even to Europe and the United Kingdom.
The band has gone through a number of incarnations over the years but has retained the same singer, Johnny Ott, and lead guitarist, Jimmy Ray, for two decades.
The other members of the CK5 are Mikey G. on bass and vocals and D.T. Graves on drums/percussion and vocals. According to Ott, they are just about to start with a new player in the next few weeks at the Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton.
“The Cryptkeeper Five started as a five-piece band, and has been everything from a trio to a seven-piece band,” he says. (The band’s name is an homage to classic pop groups from the 1960s such as the Dave Clark Five, and not a reference to the song “The Monster Mash.”)
After 20 years, the CK5 is even more dedicated to Trenton — to its fans, to the bars and clubs that first supported them, and to the stories about growing up in and around the capital city.
You can hear tales of Trenton and various growing pains in the CK5’s latest self-released album, “The Stronghold,” which came out in September, 2017, to positive reviews from fans, bloggers, and college radio. Ott says the theme of growing up ties the project together.
“It’s about the household I grew up in, family and Trenton in the 1980s and ’90s, that’s a huge part of what the album is about,” he says.
Keeping the fires stoked under a band that writes and plays its own original music has been a struggle, but Ott says a few area venues have really helped in fueling those fires.
One such spot is the basement at the Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton, where rockers, artists, and other members of the underground cultural community come out to play and support one another.
The CK5 will play the Mill Hill basement on Friday, March 30, as well as Thursday, April 12. The band will be there again on Thursday, May 3, and Friday, June 1, in a show that will benefit the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a charity that supports research and cures for childhood cancers.
“I love the basement at Mill Hill, they’re pretty open-minded, it’s a great crowd, and everyone just likes good music,” Ott says. “Everyone is respectful of all styles, and we’ve played with all kinds of bands there, everything from hip hop artists to acoustic bands.”
Once into the summer season the CK5 will be headed out to various venues and festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
“We played Europe last year. We did six shows in Germany, as well as shows in London and Liverpool, England; Belfast, Northern Ireland; Wales; and Canada,” Ott says. “That’s one of our goals — to keep doing this, getting in front of foreign crowds.”
“That’s the upside of digital music — it puts you together with crowds (around the world) who can find out about you and hear your music,” he continues. “Last summer we played for decent crowds every night, and they knew our songs, which is awesome.”
As much as the digital music phenomenon has enhanced the CK5’s career, Ott muses that it has also taken a certain something away from the listening experience.
“With digital the magic of listening to an album is lost,” he says. “Whereas with vinyl I’ll sit on my couch and really listen to it, instead of the music just being in the background. That’s what I liked about vinyl growing up. I’d get an album, lie down in my room, and get lost in it, read the lyrics, look at the pictures of the band, etc.”
That’s one of the reasons the CK5 released “The Stronghold” on vinyl as well as other formats. Fans also really love vinyl, part of a trend that helped the retro format outsell CDs last year on Amazon.
“The Stronghold” opens with “Mad Dog 20/20 No. 2,” a kind of E Street Band meets Roy Orbison sound, featuring straight-forward guitars and drums, accented with glockenspiel. The album ebbs and flows through polished punk, maybe a little 1980s synthesizer here and funky 1960s Hammond organ there.
Hand claps, castanets, and even sleigh bells weave in and out through the album. One song, “Bristol,” has a Springsteen and E Street Band-style call-and-response chorus, as well as trumpet and baritone sax.
“We love the E Street Band, and when we recorded, we went a little crazy,” Ott says. “We wanted to go for a very retro Bruce Springsteen/Tom Petty sound and feel mixed with a Jersey sound because we’re a Jersey band.”
“Our goal was ‘no synthetic sounds,’ so you’re hearing a real organ, pianos, horns, strings, glockenspiel, etc.,” he adds. “We got all that stuff on there. Then we stripped it down as we were mixing it. You’ll still hear the instrumentation come in bits and pieces throughout the album, though.”
The CK5 has been around long enough to know exactly what it wants in a project’s sound, and the group was fortunate to be able to hire Brian Lucey to master the album at his Magic Garden Mastering facilities in Los Angeles.
“Brian has mastered some of my favorite albums by artists like the Black Keys, Cage the Elephant, Brandy Carlisle, Delta Spirit, Dr. John, etc.,” Ott says. “We knew we wanted a very natural rock and roll sound, not overly processed, and we felt Brian was right for our album. We’re really happy with how it came out.”
Also integral to the sound of “The Stronghold” is Sean Glonek, who co-produced, recorded/engineered, and mixed the album at SRG Studios in Hamilton Square. Ott says that they’ve known each other for so long, Glonek could almost be another band member. “Sean really understands our sound,” Ott says.
Ott, 41, grew up on the border of Trenton and Hamilton. His father was a warehouse manager; his mother worked at a variety of jobs, including collections.
He attended Steinert High School (Class of 1994), where he met guitarist Jimmy Ray, and the two started a band in the 10th grade. Ott then went to Mercer County Community College to delve into his love for and natural talent in visual art.
“I took as many art classes as I could, although I didn’t graduate,” he says. “My main teacher was Mel Leipzig, and he was amazing, a great teacher. I must have taken a dozen classes with him.”
“I still paint and draw and do all the CK5’s posters and albums covers,” Ott says, adding that his day job is as a delivery person for Sherwin-Williams.
Ott has always loved music and says he gets this trait from his mom, who played a lot of rock records when he was growing up, especially early Rod Stewart.
The urge to start a band came after attending his second live rock show: the Ramones at City Gardens. “It was all over after that,” Ott says. “That concert changed the direction of my life: I went from wanting to be an art teacher to wanting to be in a punk rock band.”
“City Gardens closed down when I was about 19, but in those (intervening) years, I must have seen something like 80 shows there,” he adds. “I saw everyone, such crazy bands, and it was at such a young age that it changed everything for me.”
He muses that his parents used to drive him to the club in the somewhat questionable neighborhood, drop him off, and pick him up after the show.
“My parents were so cool about driving me to City Gardens,” he says. “I don’t know why they did that, and if I had kids, I certainly wouldn’t do it now.”
As far as balancing work at Sherwin-Williams with rock life, Ott says, “We all have day jobs, but we all try to find work that is flexible enough to let us do what we do. (When you have a day job) it makes you appreciate how great it is to get out and play music. My thinking is, ‘I do this so I can go out and rock.’”
One side of Ott is obviously a rocker, but the other loves his down time, living quietly in the Sylvan Glen section of Bordentown Township with his wife, Leigh-Ann, who works at Grounds For Sculpture. He says she is the best “rock wife” you could ask for.
“She’s the most supportive person I’ve met,” he says. “We’ve been married for six years, but we’ve been together the whole time I’ve been in the band. It’s very rare to have someone like this. For example, sometimes I go away for a month or more, but she’s OK with that. She knows I’d never disrespect her, and vice versa.”
If there is an anthem song on “The Stronghold,” something a band might open or close a show with, it’s “Ignite,” with its hard rocking guitars, driving tempo, and crank-up-the-volume chorus.
With all the political upheaval going on, “Ignite” could be a protest song, but Ott says it’s much more personal: the theme is basically, “I’m still rocking.”
“Sometimes as artists get older, they mellow out, but they mellow too much,” Ott says. “This is the downfall of being around for a long time and getting comfortable. For us, ‘Ignite’ has that ‘we still have the fire inside’ feel.”
Ott adds that the CK5 tries to stay away from political themes for songs, though it’s not easy these days. “It’s hard not to be political because politics is so in-your-face,” he says. “We make a conscious effort to not write political songs because we want to be an escape from that. Our fans don’t want to hear about the left or the right. They just want to go out and forget about everything and have fun.”
“That’s one of my favorite things about a really good rock show — you’re just happy to be alive,” Ott says. “That’s what makes being in the band for so long fun for me. People enjoy what we’re doing, so we must be doing something right.”
The Cryptkeeper Five, Mill Hill Basement, 300 South Broad Street, Trenton. Friday, March 30, 9 p.m. $6. Also Thursday April 12, 9 p.m.; Thursday, May 3, 9 p.m.; and Friday, June 1, 9 p.m., in a benefit for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. 609-989-1600. www.themillhill.com.
The CK5 on the web: thecryptkeeperfive1.bandcamp.com and www.facebook.com/TheCryptkeeperFive.