You never know who you’ll meet when you’re at an airport. On September 13th, me, my brother and our family friend were flying to Florida for a Walt Disney World vacation. While waiting to board the flight, we found out that a band was among our fellow passengers. The band was an 80s tribute band called Jessie’s Girl, and I struck up a conversation with their drummer, Michael Maenza. Relating stories about the 80s talents he’s performed with, I knew he would make for an interesting interview subject. We spoke on October 10th, and I hope you all enjoy an introduction to this talented drummer.
Say hello to Michael Maenza!
Johnny: Hi, Mike. It’s Johnny Caps.
Michael: Hi, John.
Johnny: How are you?
Michael: I’m good, Johnny. I’m just in my studio, working on some drum stuff. How are you?
Johnny: I’m good.
Michael: I got the day off. I’m just having some fun. I got a lot of gigs that I’m trying to prepare for, but I don’t actually have any gigs today, so I actually get to play drums for the fun of it. Usually, I’m playing drums for somebody else, but today I’m off.
Johnny: Alright. Well, I have my questions ready to go, so I always start off with these two. Number one: What were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Michael: My favorite music growing up was a band called Cheap Trick. That was my first concert ever after hearing them on the radio. My friend and I conned our parents into letting us go by ourselves, even though we were 13 years old. What movies did I like growing up as a kid? Comedies. I liked National Lampoon’s Animal House and Vacation, and anything that was derived from Saturday Night Live. I grew up on that.
Johnny: My next question is: What were your high school days like?
Michael: They were filled with as much music as I could squeeze in. I went to a technical school, so we actually had to take a trade. I was taking architectural drafting (laughing), which is as far from music as it could possibly be, but we did have a music program at that school. I was always sneaking away from study hall and lunch periods to spend more time in the music room. Like any impressionable kid, I spent time doodling on my notebooks, concert themes and possible stage scenarios for all my high school bands. I was in a couple of different bands in high school, and I was always trying to book them in high school for dances and school functions aside from the usual battle of the bands.
Johnny: Okay. Who have been your biggest influences as a drummer?
Michael: I guess they would be the classics, like John Bonham from Led Zeppelin. My dad turned me on to jazz and swing, so I liked Gene Krupa. I was more influenced by songs. If there was a band being played on the radio, and I enjoyed their music, I’d say “who is that?” and look it up. Dino Danelli of The Rascals was a great drummer. Dino and Gene were really showy guys, and I was really influenced by guys who were showmen. Dino was one of the first guys I saw who would twirl drumsticks or spin them, and Gene Krupa was just on another level. He was such a great showman. He really bought the drums to the forefront of the bandstand back in the old jazz days. Modern guys? Neil Peart from Rush, and there’s a guy from Chicago who I’ve been really influenced by named Chip Ritter. He’s an amazing all-around drummer and a big showman as wel. I recently learned some new techniques from him. I’ve been juggling sticks lately. One of my new additions to my tricks is juggling three drum sticks while playing the groove. I saw Chip do it on the David Letterman show about three years ago, and I’ve been working on it ever since to the point where I finally can actually do it. That covers that, old and new.
Johnny: Cool. Looking up examples of your previous work, I came across a video of a 90s band called Rik Wicked that credited you as a member. If that was a former group of yours’, what was your favorite memory of being in that band?
Michael: (Laughing) Oh, Rik Wicked. Good times. Rik Wicked is a band I joined that were actually based out of Atlanta, Georgia, and I spent the latter part of the 80s and early 90s with them, touring throughout the South and the mid-West. Wow. The memories are just the time spent on the road. We performed 5 to 7 nights a week. We were a traveling band, and so we would be the house band for an entire week. We’d do Fort Wayne, Indiana for a week at Tonto’s. The following week we’d be in Finky’s in Evansville, Indiana, and then we’d be in Louisville, Kentucky at the Toy Tiger. We’d go all the way up to Cincinnati, Ohio and play Annie’s for a week, or Never On Sunday’s. It was a lot of work performing so much. We were doing three one-hour sets a night. Sometimes, on the weekend, there were certain venues where we did 4 45-minute sets. I learned a lot. There was a lot of camraderie in the group. We all got along fairly well. It was about building the band’s name. It’s funny. I joined the group because they wrote a lot of great songs, but once I joined and figured out they were a working band, I realized it was very difficult to write original music with that band. That’s actually why I left them, because it got too much playing night after night. We were doing cover songs. We were basically a jukebox with long hair. We did everybody from Led Zeppelin to Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, Stryper, Triumph…We were the house band for an entire week at a venue, and when the week was over, we would go on to another venue. It was difficult building up your audience because not a lot of people go out on Monday nights. By the end of the week, if we were doing our job, Fridays and Saturdays were packed, and then we’d uproot and do it all again the following week. I guess the memories I have of that are just the traveling and the friendships that I developed. I know people all over the country now because of my early days on the road with Rik Wicked.
Johnny: Okay. On your Facebook page, it says you’ve been a drummer for a New York City project called Kung Foo Karaoke. What’s that all about?
Michael: Kung Foo Karaoke is a live band karaoke show. We perform at various venues and functions in New York City. We have a song list of over 200 songs. It’s like going to a karaoke bar, except it’s a live band backing you up instead of a backing track. It’s a 5-piece band, and all the members of the band are very accomplished. We all know hundreds of songs, and it’s a fun night out. I also play with a couple of other karaoke bands. I’ve played with the Arlene’s Grocery karaoke band, and another group called the Rock Star Karaoke Band, but I’m a full-time member of the Kung Foo Karaoke band. Over the Summer, we do a residency in Astoria, Queens at a venue called Studio Square. It’s an outdoor venue and we play every Thursday night in the Summer. We’ve done it for the past 4 years there. There’s other bars as well. We’ve performed every Wednesday night at a place in Brooklyn called Beast Of Bourbon. We’ve done private events for corporate companies where you get to live out your fantasies of being a rock star. We do everything from Metallica to Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift to Led Zeppelin. There’s a video monitor so you can look at the lyrics right in front of you. There’s also a book in case the video monitor breaks down. There’s a master of ceremonies, so in case you don’t know your place in the song, he’ll jump in and sing with you. He’ll sing harmonies for you. It’s a fun night. I would recommend it as an alternative to singing karaoke with a machine. It’s much better with a live band.
Johnny: Cool. Have there ever been any gigs where a star from a field like music or film has come up on stage and performed?
Michael: Not with the karaoke band, but obviously with Jessie’s Girl, my main band in New York. We’ve performed with many famous artists in Jessie’s Girl…Dee Snider from Twisted Sister, Lou Gramm from Foreigner, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, Mike Score from A Flock Of Seagulls (we’ve done a bunch of shows with him), Martin Fry from ABC, Colin Hay from Men At Work, and just recently, two weeks ago, we did a gig with Doug E. Fresh. We’ve also played with Tone Loc, Daryl McDaniel from Run-DMC and Rob Base. I’ve played with Steven Tyler from Aerosmith on private gigs, Bonnie Tyler, Katrina from Katrina And The Waves, Miley Cyrus…I’ve played with quite a few, most of them being with Jessie’s Girl, as Jessie’s Girl is a really high-profile gig for me. We have a really great agent who keeps us working. I do, on average, 2 or 3 gigs a week with Jessie’s Girl. We have a residency that we play every Saturday night in New York City at Le Poisson Rouge…That’s on Bleecker Street in the West Village. The rest of the week is travel dates. I was in Boston this week. We were in Connecticut last week. We’ve got one coming up next week. We’re at the Paramount Theater in Huntington, Long Island. Jessie’s Girl is my main group, and then I play with a variety of original acts still. It keeps me creative. I’m in the process of working on a new record with a guy from New Jersey named Tommy Zapparelli.
(Above: Highlights of Jessie’s Girl’s performance with one of my recent interview subjects, Debbie Gibson)
Johnny: I’ll return to Jessie’s Girl soon, but in the meantime, to my next question: Another band you’re a member of is The Elektrik Company, a disco tribute band. As you’ve played in both the rock and disco genres, what do you think of the disdain that some rock fans hold for any genre that isn’t rock?
Michael: I think that people should keep an open mind when it comes to music. Granted, there’s certain parts of the disco scene that I really didn’t care for, but a lot of it was actually very cool. The idea is that the more variety of music you have coming into your brain, the better. If you can play a dance song, and then play a rock or a heavy metal song, or a jazz tune or a country tune, it’s only going to make you a better musician. I’ve tried to keep my eyes and ears open to that scene. I don’t really do that many gigs with the Elektrik Company. I’m actually their sub-drummer, but I have played with them in the past. I just got a call a week ago that they needed a drummer for their soundcheck. Their drummer couldn’t make soundcheck, so they said, “Hey, can you can come in and do that?”. I said, “Sure, I’ll do it. I’ll help you guys out”. They’re a fun group. They revive the whole Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and they wear the leisure suits, but it’s not my main project. I’m not a full-time member of the Elektrik Company, although I’m friends with all of them, and I’ve played with them off and on for probably the last 4 years. They’re a fun group.
Johnny: Cool. Returning to Jessie’s Girl, that’s how I first became familiar with you. Even as 90s nostalgia has become the trend of The New 10s, people still love the pop culture of the 80s, and bands like Jessie’s Girl keep that culture alive. We’d also discussed this briefly before the flight, but what do you think makes the 80s so intriguing to people decades after it ended?
Michael: It’s the songs. The songs speak to people. The lyrics? A lot of them were very light and very party-enthusiastic. It’s genetic. Song lyrics made people want to go out and have a good time. A lot of them were anthemic songs you could sing along to, or raise your first and yell to. We play week after week, and I’m always amazed. Every Saturday Night, there’s between 600 and 800 people at the gig, you know? I think it’s the songs. It’s the general catchiness of the songs, of a well-crafted song. The 80s had plenty, and a lot of them were one-hit-wonders. Fashion was another intriguing part of it. The bands dressed up. They tried to put on a show for people. The 90s were definitely a stripped-down era of music. It was basically guys in jeans and T-shirts and boots, often the flannel with the grunge movement. The 80s just screamed high fashion, spandex pants and leather, wild colors and jewelry and wristbands and cool shoes and big, big hair. That’s what I think the appeal was, giving people an excuse to have a good time.
Johnny: I definitely agree with that. To my next question, what have been, respectively, your most and least favorite gigs that you’ve played with Jessie’s Girl?
Michael: I’ll start with the good ones. They include selling out the Paramount Theater in Huntington, Long Island. It’s been a venue where we’ve really built up a following. A lot of big national acts perform at the Paramount. Buckcherry played there. Judas Priest did two nights there last year. Ace Frehley was there last month as well. A lot of bands on their way up, and some, actually, on their way down as well (laughing) have played there. It’s really great to be in a tribute act, of all bands, and to not have another seat for sale in the place was definitely an accomplishment. I guess my 2nd favorite gig would be playing at the Theater at Madison Square Garden last November. It was part of what was called the I Want My 80s concert. It was done in partnership with our agency and another booking agent. They had Martha Quinn, the original MTV VJ. She hosted the event, and there were a number of 80s pop stars. Jessie’s Girl performed a 45-minute set, and then we were the back-up band for all these stars from the 80s. There were over 6000 people at the event. It wasn’t sold out, but it was a very great show, man. I got to walk the halls at Madison Square Garden where Led Zeppelin walked. I was walking down the hallway, and there were pictures of all the bands who performed there. It was a great feeling to know I’m walking through the corridors where some of my heroes performed at. As far as bad gigs with Jessie’s Girl, there was one gig in Miami where we were flown down to do a private event. It was a very lavish affair, and we ended up getting rained out. We played 3 songs, and all the money that was spent promoting guests, setting up the sound, our hotels, our airfare and our food, and all the celebrities…The organizer forgot to put up a tent over the stage.
Michael: (Laughing) We were all kind of disappointed. We were supposed to play with Marc Anthony. We were supposed to do a couple of songs with him, and then perform our own set. It was going to be a great night, and it was just disappointing that we got rained out. We still got paid, but the people were kind of disappointed.
Johnny: Was that last month? I’m only saying that because the flight to Florida that we were on? It was really raining. Me, my brother and our family friend were going to Orlando for Disney and…
Michael: Yeah. I remember that. No, it wasn’t last month. It was actually about a year ago. We were in Miami. We actually got all the way there and set up onstage. I just looked up and I began to notice at soundcheck. I said, “What if it rains?”, and the party planner came up to me and said, “Oh, no. It hasn’t rained down here in a week. You’ll be fine. We’re going to be fine”. Sure enough, 3 songs into the set…It was a crazy night. It was good that we still got paid, but I felt bad that we couldn’t give the clients what they wanted after they spent all the money getting us down there from New York City and renting all the equipment. If they had just gotten a tent, we could have kept on performing. We made it up to the client. He booked us for another event. It all worked out.
Johnny: Alright. To my next question: You’ve played in metal bands, a disco band and an 80s tribute band. What musicians would I be most surprised to find on your iPod?
Michael: What musical selections?
Michael: Wow. What I listen to for enjoyment would definitely surprise people. I go for everybody from Bette Midler to Slipknot. I’m not a huge fan of pop music or drum machine-influenced music, but I’m still a sucker for a catchy hook. Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, Pantera…Anything with a good riff or a good hook I’m usually a sucker for. There’s not too much country, but I do like some old-school artists like Garth Brooks and Toby Keith. I’ve got the complete Led Zeppelin box set. Of course I’ve got that on there. I’ve got the KISS box set on there. I have the Dave Brubeck Orchestra, Gene Krupa’s almost complete catalog, Buddy Rich, Cheap Trick’s box set as my first concert ever was Cheap Trick. I just bought their newest release. Jessie’s Girl is actually doing a gig with Cheap Trick in February, so I’m looking forward to seeing them live again.
Johnny: Awesome. I now come to my last question, which is this: What do you hope to accomplish within the next 10 years?
Michael: Wow. That’s a good one (laughing). I hope to continue to be a working musician. I’d like to branch out into possibly different styles. I’ve done some recording sessions where I’ve recorded some country music, but I’ve never performed with a country band, so that’s something I’d like to try in the coming years. Just to keep being busy…I’ve been really fortunate. The last year has probably been my most successful year in the music business. I recently got a drumstick endorsement, and I’m working on a drum head and a possible cymbal endorsement, so I’m hoping to continue my current success. I hope to keep playing to more and more people every week, having the residency with Jessie’s Girl. Being able to play every Saturday night is one of my biggest blessings, and we have a great agent. Marcus Linial is our agent. Fun Music Presents is his company, and he keeps us working, and I’m real fortunate to be part of his family. He’s made my life better, and hopefully, he’ll continue to, within the next 10 years, keep working with me. Keep working. With your writing, I hope you get to continue to keep writing. Hopefully we’ll see each other at a gig real soon, Johnny.
Johnny: Cool. I thank you for taking the time to do this.
Michael: If you ever want to come to a gig, please let me know.
Johnny: I’ll give it some thought. I thank you for taking the time to speak to me, and I hope you have a good afternoon.
Michael: Thanks, Johnny. I’ll be in touch soon.
Johnny: Alright. Talk to you soon. Bye.
Michael: Bye bye.
For more about Michael’s band Jessie’s Girl, visit their official Facebook page.
Coming soon to The Flashback Interview is my conversation with actress and stuntwoman Spice Williams-Crosby. Stay tuned for that interview and many more, and thank you for all your support.