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The Mastro of Hoboken: James Mastro on His First Solo Album, His Years in Ian Hunter’s Rant Band, the Bongos, and Other Rock n’ Roll Nuggets

JAMES MASTRO IS A VETERAN OF THE NEW YORK MUSIC SCENE, first recording as a teenager on Richard Lloyd’s post-Television album Alchemy before becoming a member of Hoboken’s The Bongos in the ‘80s. Over the years he’s played guitar with The Patti Smith Band, John Cale and others, produced records by the likes of Steve Wynn and Amy Speace, and is perhaps best known for his lengthy tenure in Ian Hunter’s Rant Band, a collaboration stretching back to 2000. Four decades into his career and a fixture on the Hoboken arts scene Mastro is set to release his first solo album, Dawn Of A New Error (MPress Records), a terrific set of songs that range from the proud rock’n’roll strut of its opening number to more introspective ruminations on life’s foibles. Produced by Patti Smith’s longtime bass player, Tony Shanahan and featuring Ian Hunter singing on three of the songs, DAWN OF A NEW ERROR has its share of hard hitting lyrics commenting on the state of the nation–along with a sense of optimism at times–and finds Mastro subtly channelling much of what influences him into the songs.

Asked why it’s taken so long to record a solo album Mastro says, “Well all along I’ve been in bands where I was the main person or the key writer, and one of the good things about being in a band is that when something goes wrong you can blame it on someone else. But this time I manned up and figured yeah, alright, I’ll take the blame for this if anything goes wrong.”

The Covid induced halt in touring allowed Mastro to write the songs for the album before going into the studio, and he is unstinting in his praise for his producer. “A big hand goes to Tony Shanahan who produced the album,” he tells Hollywood.com. “We’ve been friends forever, played in bands forever, and still do. He has a great studio and we see eye to eye on just about everything, and share so many influences. I do love rock’n’roll, and while maybe at this age we should be talking more about mowing the lawn and our ailments, rock seems to keep you going.”

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Those influences are there to hear on the album. There’s a Beatles like Mellotron on the deeply affecting “My God,” while “River Runs Forever” sounds like an early ‘70s Dylan outtake. But the most immediate impact is when the needle drops on the opening song, “Right Words, Wrong Song”, a very topical take on the rise of fake news.

“It’s about perceptions,” Mastro reflects. “It seems that these days anyone can find a fact that will back up their argument, whether or not it is a fact. There are so many news and media outlets that cater to a certain viewpoint and it seems that anything like a universal truth has fallen by the wayside. So certainly the song hints at that and the video definitely takes a little piss out of the whole set up.”

That video introduced the album’s lead single late last year, and it finds Mastro, Ian Hunter and Tammy Fay Starlite playing news anchors on a 24 hour rolling news program. “I can’t believe Ian agreed to do it, he hasn’t even been in his own videos recently so when I asked him I was expecting a resounding no but he came along and had a great time. As for Tammy, you should check her out. She’s an amazing performer; she does these fantastic tribute shows to Nico and Marianne Faithfull that are very funny but also very endearing and deadly serious. We’ve been friends a long time and she was the obvious choice to play my co-anchor in the video.”

“Right Words, Wrong Song” is the album’s most energetic song with its propulsive punk thrash and, aside from Mastro’s blistering guitar work, features a tremendously cheesy Farfisa organ which reminds you of Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas days. “I love Doug Sahm, one of my favourites and truly an unsung hero so yes, that organ sound was influenced by him but we also wanted to add a nod to The Tornados’ Telstar. When you’ve been around as long as I have you can’t help but absorb all this stuff and it comes out in little dribs and drabs.”

Ian Hunter appears on three of the album tracks. “Initially I asked him to sing on ‘Right Words, Wrong Song’ and he came into the studio and did a great Ian Hunter impersonation,” Mastro says wryly. “And then he asked ‘What else you got?’ So we played him a few of the songs and he had a couple of ideas and joined in. I couldn’t get rid of him! He has a great knack of coming up with things that I just wouldn’t have thought of, and I’ve learned a lot of things from over the years. He veers away from the obvious and he came up with some great ideas for the songs. I feel very fortunate and flattered that Ian felt it worthy enough to participate.”

Diary of a Ranter

Mastro onstage with the one-and-only Ian Hunter. Photo: John Blenn

MASTRO HAS BEEN PLAYING WITH HUNTER IN THE RANT BAND SINCE 2000, a gig he admits he got initially via a lie. “Ian was coming out a kind of semi retirement to do one show in New York in 2000 and my friend Andy York was the musical director for it,” he remembers. “Now, Mott the Hoople was the main reason I started playing guitar. When I was a teen Mott were all over the radio and I was familiar with ‘All the Young Dudes.” But when ‘All The Way To Memphis; came out that was like a hundred volts of electricity going through me. So when I heard that Andy was directing the show I called him up and said, ‘If you need a guitar player then I’m the guy.’ Andy said he’d talk to Ian and called me back the next day saying ‘Ian doesn’t want another guitar player.’

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“Damn! So I thought about it, and got back to Andy saying, ‘I’m sure Ian’s bound to play ‘I Wish I was Your Mother’, so I’ll play mandolin on that,” Mastro continues. “He ran it by Ian, and he said OK, come in tomorrow, which meant I not only had to learn the song but I also had to get a mandolin and learn how to play it in 24 hours.”

As Mastro recalls, they did the rehearsal, and Hunter thought it sounded good, and he was in. “At the end of the actual show I was standing in the wings as they started to play ‘All The Young Dudes,’ and no one was playing acoustic guitar. I’m like, fuck, this song needs an acoustic guitar, so I grabbed one and went onstage. The rest of the band saw me and were OK, but Ian didn’t know until the song ended, and he started to introduce the band and found me standing there. Fortunately he just started laughing and the next day he told Andy I could stay in the band. So I kind of bluffed my way in.”

Years later there was a similar situation when the idea came up of doing a Mott The Hoople ’74 reunion featuring guitarist Ariel Bender (Luthor Grosvenor) and keyboardist Morgan Fisher, both of whom were in the band for its legendary Uris Theater shows. Mastro recalls, “Ian wanted the Rant Band to be the backing group and we were all chuffed, but then it dawned on me we’d have four guitar players on stage which just seemed daft.  So I said to Ian, ‘You know, I play saxophone if you want some sax in the show.'”

He remembers that Hunter “kind of looked at me sideways and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure.'” In twenty years he’d never seen Mastro near a saxophone. “But I had two months to learn it and it worked out well,” Mastro says, adding, “At least I didn’t get fired.”

Aside from his teenage Mott The Hoople fixation, Mastro was fortunate in that he was close enough to witness New York’s punk heyday and eventually become part of it. “I started playing guitar when I was thirteen,” he says.  “It was exciting being around New York in the mid 70s. I was about an hour away, a train ride, and my older brother came home one day raving about seeing Talking Heads at CBGB. I was underage but I could lie my way in so me and my brother started going to these gigs.”

That was how he met Richard Lloyd (a founding member of the groundbreaking Television), which allowed him to start playing in a band. “I moved to Hoboken when I left high school and that was a great time to be here,” Mastro says. “The initial New York buzz around The Ramones and Patti Smith and Television had died down, but in Hoboken we had Maxwell’s which was just an amazing club. Everyone played there and I lived in a flat just above it. The Pogues played there the first time they came over, and I saw bands like The Fall. Hoboken had its own local scene and The Bongos were the first band to play in the back room at Maxwell’s and I knew all the guys.”

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At that time Mastro was still playing with Richard Lloyd but he’d occasionally sit in with them. “And then they asked me to join them for their second album. That was an easy decision, a real no brainer actually, and it was a lot of fun. It was kind of like my college education. We had some hits and it was the MTV era so we made some big hair videos,” he says, “which is maybe the reason why I’ve got no hair now.”

They toured for five years nonstop, and he remembers it as a special time. “After The Bongos I had some other bands, I was touring quite a lot. But eventually I came to the realization that I was playing for the wrong reasons. I was trying to get a record deal, trying to appease an A&R man who I’d never met, and the joy was missing.”

Mastro’s next venture was a mix of burnout and happenstance, with Hank Williams proving an unlikely savior. “Me and my friend Vinnie DeNunzio, who was one of the original members of The Feelies, shared a love of Hank Williams songs, and we took to sitting about drinking beer and playing some Hank, and then some other friends started popping in. Folks like Graham Maby from Joe Jackson’s band, he was a neighbor of mine. And I looked around the table one time and realized I had a band there so I booked a show without telling them and just a couple of days before said, ‘If you’re not busy on Friday we’ve got a show to do and they turned up.”

That was the beginning of The Health & Happiness Show, a name they took from Williams’s old radio show. “That got me excited again, playing music for the right reasons and we had a good ten years of that,” Mastro says.

Rock n’ Roll Nuggets

Mastro at a recent performance with rock historian and longtime Patti Smith collaborator Lenny Kaye. Photo Courtesy Jack Silbert.

ALONG WITH HIS LENGTHY TENURE IN THE RANT BAND, Mastro has played with and produced numerous acts, most recently performing songs from Lenny Kaye’s influential Nuggets collection celebrating its 50th anniversary. “I’ve been fortunate to play with some of the people who inspired me to play in the first place, and while I’m not the best guitar player in the world I show up on time.” He’s also reasonably clean, he adds with quiet humor. “Usually it’s through a friend or someone in a band I know who will recommend me. With Patti Smith it was her bass player, Tony Shanahan, who recommended me when they needed a guitarist for some tours. She’s a true force of nature. When you’re on stage with Patti you follow her, her voice, she’s the lead guitar and you let her riff and go. Lenny I’ve known forever and he’s one of the nicest guys you could meet. When he compiled that album Nuggets it changed a lot of lives including mine. It really inspired me, and when the 50th anniversary of its release came up Lenny did some shows and asked me to be in the band. It’s been so much fun.”

For Mastro trying to replicate the sounds on those records was part of the project’s joy, as was playing with old friends. “We had guest singers, my old band mate from The Bongos, Richard Barone, Steve Wynn from The Dream Syndicate, and Alejandro Escovedo.”

Solidly embedded in Hoboken’s art scene, Mastro has two guitar stores and recently opened a music venue, 503 Social Club.

“Well, this little space came up for rent, which is kind of rare in Hoboken these days, and I thought I could do something with it,” he explains. “It’s kind of a café-cum-art gallery and we have started doing some acoustic shows. We had Jon Langford and Sally Timms play while we displayed some of Jon’s paintings. I’m a huge Mekons fan so that was a special night. I just figure it’s a good place for me and my friends to hang out and for local people to see and hear some good music. As for the guitar stores, I love guitars and, just like Ian Hunter describes in his book Diary Of A Rock’n’Roll Star, when I was touring I always checked out the local pawn shops for guitars. Ian said that Mott would return to England with about fifty guitars they’d bought on tour!” Mastro says he had so many guitars in his house that he thought, “I’d better do something with them before I come home one day and find them all thrown out of the curb.”

It was probably no surprise to Mastro–or anyone else–that he became “the shop’s best customer.”

“The guitar I play on the video is a recent acquisition, a 1970’s Ibanez Flying V,” he muses. “Folks ask if Ian’s still got his Maltese Cross guitar, but he’s not sure where the original is. However, he’s got a replica which Joe Elliott from Def Lepard made for him.”

To this Mastro can’t resist adding, “The original is out there somewhere, so keep an eye out.”

— With thanks to Jill Richmond Johnson of MPress Records


Click here to pre-save James’s new single, “Someday Somebody Will Turn Your Head Around,” out January 17, 2024.
Click here to pre-order a copy of Dawn of A New Error, out Feb 21, 2024.
James Mastro’s upcoming tour dates and other information can be found here at his website.
Find out more about James Mastro on:
MPress Records


Paul Kerr is based in Scotland and has been writing about music, in particular Americana, for a number of online sites and various music magazines for a couple of decades. If you’re interested in learning more about Americana, check out his great site at Blabber ‘n’ Smoke at www.paulkerr.wordpress.com. 


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