Jersey City’s Tris McCall Joins the Star-Ledger

One of New Jersey’s most strident boosters now has a seat at the state’s largest paper. Tris McCall, who has graced stages all over Jersey City for the better part of the ’00s, joined the Star-Ledger as a pop music critic earlier this month, working under longtime critic Jay Lustig, who became the paper’s arts & entertainment editor in April.

“I’ve been reading his writing for twenty years, so I know he was born to it,” McCall says. “It’s been fun working with him so far. I’m trying to learn as much from him as I can.”

We caught up with McCall on Sunday via email to learn a little more about the new gig.

This job seems like almost the perfect match for you — New Jersey’s largest newspaper … music criticism … Tris McCall. How are you feeling about all of this? Is it a dream come true, an early career capstone, or what?

I am excited to be part of the paper. I’ve been a Ledger reader since I was a kid. In my school, you could get the Ledger daily for something like eight cents a day. I always opted in. That was my window on the world outside my sleepy automobile suburb.

Back then, the music critic was George Kanzler. He was my introduction to rock writing. This guy gets to listen to records and then write about them?; how cool is that? I learned about box scores from the Ledger. I remember my dad teaching me about stock listings at the kitchen table. Those were my first funny papers, too. I got my initial exposure to state politics through the Ledger.

Growing up, the newspaper was a daily presence. It’s probably impossible for me to overemphasize its importance. I had no internet, and the television news seemed to be about nothing but murders in New York City. I didn’t want to watch that.

The New York Times struck ten-year-old me as unnecessarily serious — they wouldn’t even run Doonesbury. Besides, New York was where my cousins lived. I lived in Jersey. I wanted a Jersey paper.

At times, you’ve been a pretty relentless blogger. Given the shrinking amount of print space available, are you planning to bring almost a web-first strategy to the gig? What’s your approach towards putting the newsprint and web components together?

I have always been a print guy. Many of the writers who’ve had the biggest influence on me — Ring Lardner, Dave Marsh, Mike Lupica, Jerry Izenberg, Mike Royko — ran their stories in newspapers. I don’t think Bill James ever worked for a newspaper, but he definitely wrote like somebody who read the newspaper. When I was starting out of college, I copied the style of the culture critics in the Village Voice. I did my first pieces in Jersey Beat, and although Jim [Testa] has taken to the web better than many, he’s a print guy at heart, too.

I started my website because I felt that the print publications in Hudson County weren’t covering music. After the Jersey Journal dropped Jim’s Constant Listener column, there really wasn’t anything happening in Jersey City. I figured I could fill in the gap a little. I didn’t expect anybody to agree with my point of view, but at least there would be something out there. I always half-fantasized that the website would morph into a print publication, or a print publication would spring up and I’d have an opportunity to write for it.

My attempts at futurism have always been dismal failures, so I won’t try to predict whether print is forever, or will even make it until next Tuesday. But I notice that a funny thing has happened on the way to the newspaper’s funeral: people keep starting up new print publications. Most vital pop scenes have a print organ. Look at Bushwick and Williamsburg — that’s probably the most wired music community in the world. Todd Patrick still lists all his gigs in Showpaper. Twenty-six issues for forty bucks, and all the shows you need.

But yes, I will post on plenty, because I have lots to say and there’s only so much room in the paper.

What about local acts — are they going to be the main focus of your work, or is it more of a mix?

My first three show assignments have been Taylor Swift, Pearl Jam, and Bon Jovi, so, um, that’s not so local. They’re all big stories, though, so they ought to be covered. I love radio pop, so I’m very comfortable writing about national touring acts. I’m a Hot-97 listener; I’m looking forward to Summer Jam.

Once summer blockbuster season is over, there will, hopefully, be room to investigate local scenes. I am going to try hard to balance my desire to cover Jersey artists with my responsibility to cover Jersey phenomena. I recognize that Bon Jovi opening the New Meadowlands sucks up most of the oxygen in the newsroom. It’s difficult to argue that I ought to be covering the Gay Blades while that’s happening.

But I’ve gotten some pieces about independent bands in the paper. I did a preview of Phantogram’s show at Maxwell’s. I wrote a bit about Screaming Females at the Meat Locker in Montclair. I did a wordy paragraph on Speed The Plough today. Next week, I am hoping to plug Lemuria, who ought to be familiar to veterans of the New Brunswick basement scene. I interviewed Joe Budden for the Ticket — he played a rare rap show at the Stone Pony on Friday night. I tried to give some love to Shore Boy Productions, the start-up promoters who put the concert together.

I promised Jay I wouldn’t turn the column into the Maxwell’s Show. I think everybody is aware that that’s a danger. I’ll attempt to temper my enthusiasm, but I’m never going to stop considering it the center of the universe.

I know it’s been a little while since you’ve had a full-time staff sort of job — what are you going to have to give up to make the Ledger job work? What will you miss most?

Honestly? I’m going to miss my midday swims in the NJCU pool. But I might be able to find a good gymnasium in Newark. I am looking forward to exploring Newark on my bike. There are many sections of the city that I haven’t explored yet, and at my advanced age that shouldn’t be.

I am going to have to cool my jets on my own musical projects for awhile. I’m not going to stop playing music, but I don’t think I am going to be able to do a new record at Melody Lanes this year. Jay Braun keeps reminding me that I haven’t properly supported or promoted Let The Night Fall. I know he’s right, but it’s something I can live with for now. The album isn’t going anywhere. Anybody who wants a copy can still get one from me.

On the other end, what are you most looking forward to about the Ledger job?

Learning about new artists, and having the platform to communicate my enthusiasm about pop music to the Ledger‘s readership. It’s also going to be really nice to spend each day trying to be a better writer than I was the day before.

What’s the most exciting area of the state for new music right now?

This is going to sound crazy because I’ve never even been there, but I’m really excited about what’s going on in Vineland right now. They’ve got a place down there called Hangar 84 that I know next to nothing about, but the schedule is amazing. The Wonder Years are playing there tonight. The Dangerous Summer is there next week. We Shot The Moon just did a show, Closure In Moscow just did a show; A Skylit Drive and Gwen Stacy are coming up next month. I Can Make A Mess Like Nobody’s Business has been there. All of these bands make music for young adults and teenagers, so it’s got to be an all-ages room, right? The MySpace page suggests that shows start at six o’ clock — I love that. Google Maps tells me that it’s two hours and forty minutes from my house to Vineland, which is not nothing. But I am looking forward to giving myself an excuse to investigate.

You know as well as anyone the difficulties live music in Jersey City has faced; do you see that as being mostly a result of the shadow cast by NYC, and if so, to what extent does that apply to the rest of the state? After all, it’s all still considered Metro New York…

Actually, many Jersey bands are doing well right now. Real Estate and Titus Andronicus both have built international reputations, and the Screaming Females are on their way. Nicole Atkins has become very popular. Jersey bands play the cool DIY shows in Bushwick — Big Troubles and Fluffy Lumbers and groups like that. And older bands from Jersey, I am happy to observe, are beginning to get the respect that may have eluded them when they were younger. Not many people took Saves The Day very seriously when Through Being Cool came out, but I think we now realize what an interesting guitarist and songwriter Chris Conley is. Appreciation for Rorschach’s catalog continues to grow. We can all agree that the Feelies were one of the best rock bands of the ’80s.

Jersey City is a tougher case. I agree that our proximity to New York is a problem, but there’s talent here. I continue to think that we’re one killer venue away from generating a real pop scene of our own.

Anything else to add?

Most of us begin writing about music because we love it so much. We can’t wait to tell our friends and neighbors about what we’re hearing. That impulse never fades, but if you do it long enough (and I have been doing it for a very long time), you start to develop secondary reasons for doing pop journalism. Me, I am interested in examining why people respond to what they respond to. I hazard guesses. Sometimes I’m wrong, but I hope I’m always provocative.

I’m also interested in musical projects that don’t necessarily intersect with the culture industry. Over on the other side of the Hudson, they don’t really get this: why wouldn’t you want to be on MTV? Why wouldn’t you want to turn your music into a professional career? Sometimes we forget that we often make music because it’s a rewarding thing to do — even if nobody is listening.

Jon Whiten

co-founded the Jersey City Independent. He is currently the Deputy Director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.