Staten Island band Tryptophan vows to 'Destroy Fashion'
by Ben Johnson/Staten Island AWE
Thursday June 18, 2009, 2:30 PM
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Somewhere among the world's comic book bins, there must exist an alliance of superheroes -- perhaps one that skirts the line between heroes and villains -- born in a fateful petri dish.
Like Tryptophan's players, who are former teen metal heads, touring alt-rockers and experimental psychedelic studio musicians, this alliance's members boast a spectrum of power and ability. They also revolve around a single accelerating character or pathogen that spurs them to their destiny.
"Ron has always been the main germ cell," says bassist Nick Purpura, 35, chuckling as he sits in the back of Jim Hanley's Universe on New Dorp Lane, one of two comic book shops he co-manages with Hill. "He gets all the song ideas and it grows from there."
Hill's response: "The band started in '96 as a trio, on a four-track. Now, 12 years later, I can't get rid of them."
The latter comment rings true as bandmates start busting the 40-year-old singer-lyricist's chops. Purpura and guitarist Steve Pepe spin a yarn about a large piece of tomato once found inside Hill's four-track, possibly used to hold the aging piece of analog recording equipment together. You get the feeling there are a lot of stories to go around about Tryptophan, not to mention its members' old S.I. bands: Mudfoot, Enrage and Smile For 3, to name a few.
Some of those tales might even be shared live June 19, when Tryptophan plays a CD release party at Stapleton's Martini Red for its epic new recording, "Destroy Fashion," the quartet's first professionally pressed release.
"So often people get tripped up in the big dream, and they forget why they were playing guitar in the first place," says Hill. "At the end of the day, what are you doing it for? I've seen bands spend $2,000 on demos in a fancy studio and break up before they were even released. The next 'Sergeant Peppers' will be recorded by 16-year-olds in somebody's basement."
In Hill's basement studio in Tompkinsville, it's a big party with no rules. And like the musicians who made it, "Destroy Fashion" is all over the place. On top of unstoppable drumming by Frank Cavallo, members' frenetic guitar solos and warbling vocals ride a seemingly endless wave of overdubs (from synthesizers to horns), transitioning back and forth from beginning to end. The vibe is akin to the irreverent, ambitious work of Frank Zappa.
"The band itself always has somebody coming in or going out," says Hill. "All the records and recordings had way more than three people playing on them. It was a ton of musicians from the community, and the record itself is sort of about living in that community."
Song subject matter ranges from Hill's cat to the daily grind of the common man to an unnamed band in which members take themselves way too seriously. With influences like Zappa, The Velvet Underground and Ween, it's no surprise the lyric writing sounds spontaneous and maybe even a little strange. Sure, it's not always cogent, but pop appeal isn't necessarily what this band is going for.
Likewise, Hill -- just married, with gray hair, a moon-shaped face and an audible lisp -- doesn't look or sound the part of a stereotypical rock star. But, then again, band-fronting may not be his best musical attribute.
Other band members call him a natural producer, and it's not hard to see why. With a thorough knowledge of local music history and groups on the larger stage, Hill has the kind of mildly obsessive mind that soaks up niche knowledge. He can tell you stories upon stories about the complex web of local groups or the way an obscure song was recorded, and then draw a parallel to an out-of-print comic book that only diehards know. This kind of personality leads to producing music in a way that has few boundaries -- something his musical compatriots appreciate.
"I came from alternative bands, really democratic bands where I had to be conservative with my playing," says Pepe, 35, who also plays in The Headlocks and was the lead guitarist for Seymour Glass, a local band briefly signed to Carson Daly's 456 Entertainment label. "They were clearly Ron's songs, and it was refreshing to just be a guitar player and stretch out as a musician."