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Thursday, July 31, 2014 
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The Insomniacs' Hard-Edged Pop

With Switched On!, their fourth full-length album, New Jersey's Insomniacs whip out yet another infectious concoction of power chords and stick-in-your-head choruses. Falling right on the fault line between garage rock and power pop, this guitar-bass-drums trio is undeniably retro, yet completely fresh about it. They are said to be one of the New York area's best live bands, yet they hardly ever tour. Add to that the fact that the Insomniacs may just be hard-rocking Estrus Records' most pop-oriented band, and you start to grasp the contradictions here.

"I remember my friend Dan from the Woggles telling me that Dave Crider's favorite band [Crider's the head of Estrus records and a former Mono-Man] is the Insomniacs," says Insomniac songwriter and bass player Dave Wojciechowski. "I always thought that we were like the wimpiest band on the Estrus label. They have all these real rock 'n' roll bands... and us."

Crider says that the Insomniacs' pop side was what first attracted him to the band, back in the early 1990s. "I bought their first couple of singles, and then started carrying them in the mail order catalog," he remembers. "I've always had a soft spot for hard-edged pop, and the Insomniacs have that pop sensibility without being wimpy. They remind me of some of my favorite bands, like the Stems and the Shoes."

Estrus started releasing Insomniacs albums in 1995 with Wake Up, and has since put out Out of It in 1997, Get Something Going in 2000, and this year's Switched On! "Every one of those records has been a progression," Crider says. "If you listen to the records, you can hear the songwriting getting better and the arrangements becoming more complex."

The Insomniacs were formed in 1990, when Dave and his brother Robert disbanded a previous project called Tea Party and joined up with drummer Michael Sinocchi. The band released its first three singles on its own Umbrella Records through the mid-1990s, before signing with Estrus. Yet although the Insomniacs have garnered praise from garage-rock titans like Little Steven, released four albums and many other singles, and toured the U.S. and Europe, Wojciechowski says that the band has never really aimed at being rock stars. "We've always all had full-time jobs," he explains. "This is totally just a hobby that has gotten us a lot of positive experiences."

The band's most recent album, Switched On!, was recorded over a period of nearly a year and a half, in a series of day-long sessions at Original Sins organist Dan McKinney's Bethlehem, Pennsylvania studio. "We're typically a pretty slow-working band, putting out an album every two to four years, depending on what's happening in our lives," Wojciechowski says.

This time out, the band's personal lives were fairly busy; Wojceichowski's son was born during this period, and other band members had work and life issues to deal with as well. As a result, the Insomniacs didn't have their usual chance to work songs out at shows, and they had to spend a certain amount of time reworking tempos and instrumentation in the studio. "For example, 'Listen Mary,' which is kind of one of the frothier songs on the record, started more as a very slow, drone-y psychedelic tune," Wojciechowski says. "Everybody had ideas for how it would go, but it eventually turned out to be a minute-and-a-half pop song."

Yet though the band experimented with songs, it did so with "one eye on the clock," its tight recording budget keeping aimless tweaking to a minimum. "After a certain point, it's got to come down to the songs and the chords and the words and what's happening within that three minutes," Wojciechowski says. "In the recording studio, you can just get totally lost. You can just go off in a million different directions with a twist of the knob."

During the recording process, the Insomniacs added some new elements to their sound, incorporating Dan McKinney's trademark organ wail into songs like "The Pudding Club" and dusting off the '60s-psyche vibe of the sitar in "Leave" and "Tomorrow." This latter track, in particular, is a departure for the Insomniacs: a gorgeous, Big Star-ish ballad with an Eastern flavor, which Wojciechowski says he originally intended to save for a solo project. "I had to get very drunk to do it. I had to really get a lot of courage up to sit there with the acoustic guitar in front of these idiots, because I'm not used to doing that kind of laid-back thing," he says.

Insomniacs continue to perform sporadically in the New York and New Jersey area, and they're hoping to play some dates in Spain this February, though nothing is confirmed. For dates and other news, check the Estrus Records Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, January 5, 2005]


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