“Write what you know.” It’s one of the most often-dispensed pieces of advice to writers, as Gladiola songwriter and English teacher Bill Madden-Fuoco knows. When working out the songs for the band’s third album, Off You Go, he took the aphorism to heart and gleaned lyrical inspiration from his Boston Public high school students. “Most of the songs are about teenagers, and a lot of the ideas came right from the classroom,” he explains.
For example, “Your Biography,” the crashing and soaring anthem that evokes Mission of Burma, is rooted in an epiphany hatched from a class reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “We were reading the part where the teenage Malcolm first arrives in Boston from Michigan, and his sister Ella implores him to spend his first few days exploring the city,” says Madden-Fuoco. “The book describes him walking down specific streets in Roxbury and Dorchester, and I just had this picture of a future leader wandering around, the crowds oblivious to him. It made me think of my students and how often people overlook and underestimate them. The song updates that idea.”
Similarly, “No Flag” tells the story of a group of friends graduating high school, their shared path about to diverge into different destinations. For one character, an undocumented immigrant, the path seems to disappear altogether. “I didn’t set out to write a song about immigration issues,” says Madden-Fuoco, “but this is the story of many students I know, and it’s not a story that you can just file away. For me, songs are often formed from the thoughts that are stuck in heavy rotation.”
Off You Go arrives five years after the release of the band’s second album, There is No Road. The long gap is the result of an unanticipated three-year recording process. One night bass player Chris Regalia showed up at the band’s Charlestown rehearsal space with a Tascam digital Portastudio. “We started recording demos, which sounded good, so we decided to record this album ourselves,” says Regalia, who served as engineer. The recording desk was set up facing a wall in the cramped space, necessitating Regalia to constantly crane his head around to communicate with the band. After two sessions, his neck was too sore and stiff to continue. The solution: an array of dollar store mirrors hung over the console. “I still don’t understand how it took us so long,” says Madden-Fuoco. “The results are great, and the price was right, but I don’t know if I’d do that again.” Once everything was recorded, the band handed it over to trusted partner Dave Minehan, who had recorded the first two Gladiola albums at his Woolly Mammoth studio, for mixing.
Off You Go is the first Gladiola album to feature drummer David Mohs, who took over when original drummer Gary Vitagliano moved to Ireland. Jess Madden-Fuoco, who contributes vocals, rounds out the band. Gladiola’s history begins during the summer of 2002, when Bill had put together the band for a “recording project” (the band’s initial incarnation included Tim Madden on keyboards and electronics and Eric Shepherd on second guitar). Jess floated the idea to sing a surprise set of cover songs with the Gladiola boys at her and Bill’s upcoming wedding reception. Thus the quick and temporary transformation of Gladiola into a cover band. On August 17, 2002, hours after the two became the Madden-Fuocos, Jess sang Beatles, Blondie, and Cyndi Lauper songs in full bridal regalia to a stunned audience of wedding guests. Her first-ever rock performance and ingratiation into the band.
In 2003, Gladiola fulfilled its original purpose: the completion of Let the Notes Go Free, an album of songs Bill had written since his old band, Resolve, called it quits after a decade-plus.
Let the Notes Go Free received an official self-release in 2004. The Boston Globe called Gladiola “very appealing, clever pop-rock noisemakers,” and The Noise implored readers to “Please get this.” Commercial and college radio stations transmitted Let the Notes Go Free over Boston frequencies. The “project” conceit soon evaporated.