Sunday, August 2 is the first annual Goat-Stock Festival at the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, 435 Newark Avenue, from 3 to 9 pm. If the combination of goats, graves, and grooves sounds pleasingly surreal to you, then you likely won’t want to miss the band Life in a Blender. The offbeat but undeniably tuneful group is one of eight great acts slated for the fundraiser, along with the Rock ‘n Roll Hi-Fives, The Fave, The Tribe of Uncles, Lovari Lovari, Sean Kiely, The Porchistas, and Sea of Otters.
In the course of their long career, Life in a Blender has played far (Berlin, Austin, Toronto) and near (Joe’s Pub, BAM Café, live on WFMU). And though primarily known as a Brooklyn band, they actually formed in Jersey City—right next to the cemetery—in the mid-1980s. The band even wrote a song about Jersey City.
Life in a Blender is scheduled to play at 6:45 pm on Sunday. Admission is a $10 donation ($5 for seniors and children 5 and over). Funds raised will help the all-volunteer group at the cemetery continue to operate and preserve the historic site. There will be food from Honey Bakery, and soaps, crystals, and gifts for sale from Modern Sage and Taproot Organics. Bring quarters to feed the sweet oats to the goats! Event sponsors are Rock-It Docket and the Aart in America Piano Company.
We talked with Life in a Blender’s singer and songwriter Don Rauf about the band’s past, present… and those goats.
What were those earliest days like? And why did you settle in Jersey City?
We rehearsed at 80 Waldo Avenue, a two-story house, where we also lived. Not far from Journal Square. I moved in there after college, in 1983, with Dave Moody, who I’ve known since junior high [in Poughkeepsie, New York]. He’s still in the band, playing cello. An apartment ad in the Village Voice just jumped out at us: “$750, three bedrooms.” With access to the basement for our potential band! We said, “Let’s do it.” Even though getting into the city on the PATH train always seemed eternal. I swear those trains run on human energy; I always feel sucked of all vitality!
So you formed Life in a Blender. Were there places to play in Jersey City at the time?
We had other bad names first. For a minute we were Life in a Bowl. We also played a show as “Dangerlump.” Everyone said, “It sounds like a horrible cancer!” so we changed that too. The abandoned Majestic Theater was on Grove Street [across from City Hall]. Bert Stinchcomb [a realtor and restoration designer] owned it. He’s a real character! I poked my head in one day. The theater was basically a shell, with the roof missing — you could see the sky through the ceiling, and snow would come through in the winter. So we played there!
You had early connections to They Might Be Giants. And Al Houghton engineered that band’s first records before becoming your guitarist.
Marjorie Galen, our original guitar player, went on to marry the guy who managed They Might Be Giants. We were paired on bills with them a lot, just because of a similar sensibility. Camper Van Beethoven, too — all the “ironic” bands. We liked what Al Houghton did with the Giants, so we went to him to record our second album. Al joined our band in 1992.
You’ve moved from Jersey City to Manhattan to Brooklyn, and now to Seattle. As a songwriter, has sense of place impacted you? Or has it just been the normal process of maturing?
Well, you mature as you move around. In Jersey City, we were infantile and totally jokey. When [we] hit Manhattan, I feel we did get a bit noisier, skronkier. I don’t know what happened in Brooklyn, but it got even less straightforward, more rough. I do write about everywhere I go: “Poughkeepsie—City of Sin” (recorded with Dave Moody in 1980 under the band name Batteries Not Included), the “Jersey City” song, [gentrification anthem] “What Happened to Smith?” in Brooklyn.
Have you kept up with Jersey City over the years?
I was coming back from some trip, driving through the Holland Tunnel. You can’t pay with a credit card, right? So I pulled up to the bank machine at Grove Street, I look up, and there’s Bert Stinchcomb — I hadn’t seen him in 25 years! I couldn’t believe he’s still here! Bert said, “Oh Don, Don! You must come! Come see my house!” In the past couple of years, I’ve been back a few times. I saw a movie at the Loew’s, I saw all the build-up downtown, and you have WFMU’s Monty Hall now. So things have definitely changed. But what about Journal Square? It still seems like the Wild West.
Life in a Blender has survived not only the passage of time, but also geographical drift. How do you stay in it for the long haul?
We’re all friends and we like playing with each other so we just keep it going. Miraculously, interesting gigs keep coming up, like Goat-Stock and last year we played Meatopia (a popular New York City meat-themed festival), that was great. Also I just can’t stop writing songs. If you have that strange addiction in you, and a group of friends you like to play with, you won’t be able to stop the horrible beast.
Have you ever played a cemetery before?
There will be goats at this show. Will that be problematic for your little friend Rugged Rick? (Rugged Rick is Don’s angry sheep-puppet sidekick.)
He’ll be overjoyed to be surrounded by dead people! He hates people! And as a double-whammy, he can bond with the goats, and band them together in revolution. He may get frisky out there; they’d better beware!
For more on Life is a Blender, visit lifeinablender.net.
The first annual Goat-Stock Festival will be held at the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery on Sunday, August 2, at 435 Newark Ave., from 3 to 9 pm. Admission is $10 ($5 for seniors and children 5 and over.) For more information, visit jerseycitycemetery.org or the Facebook event page.
Photo by Jack Silbert: Life in a Blender, from left: Rebecca Weiner Tompkins, Al Houghton, Don Rauf, Mark Lerner, Ken Meyer, and Dave Moody.