Dog Voices

An Interview With Rob Monte (Part 1)

The New Jersey rock scene is flooded with cover bands and the clubs that house them. The Nerds, Big Orange Cone, the Benjamins, the list goes on and on. Many still fight for the respect earned by coming up with something original, yet it remains to be seen whether true originality comes in playing someone else's music.

Jersey Shore cover band Dog Voices have created their own identity playing cover songs. Led by singer Rob Monte, they deliver consistently solid shows, with a lot of surprises. Whether it's a leap into the crowd, standing on a bar, or an on-stage shot, Monte has developed a stage presence of his own, that other copy bands try to copy. Guitarist Rich Moscola has his patented style of guitar playing that is evident even when he's doing a solo note-for-note. Drummer Rich Mattalian and bassist Ed Friend stay loose, yet solid, in the rhythm section, while keyboardist/guitarist Dan McCarthy shows how valuable a keyboard player is to a cover band. The band play others' songs, but stand on stage with their own personalities, joking and having a good time, in an effort to help the audience do the same.

Sets begin late at night and continue early into the morning. Monte himself puts in a six-day week, one of those hosting a shore musician All-Star Jam. The work put in to remain a successful cover band is grueling. For many of these bands, the challenge is to make it look as little like work as possible. Dog Voices succeeds in that task by making their crowds, which reach between 700-1000 people, forget about their jobs and problems for a night. That success makes fans want to come back for more.

Success didn't come easy and still needs to be maintained. Promotion is key. With so many other cover bands out there, you have to let people know where you're playing and that you're still around. The rewards are playing in front of huge crowds and making enough money to consider yourself a professional musician. Even though their shows resemble a frat party atmosphere, this is a band that knows professionalism is important. Monte can always be seen talking to fans between sets and this has become a new way for him to become close with them. So much so that he refers to them as friends, not fans.

This Chorus and Verse feature is the first of a two-part interview with Monte. Part one covers his career prior to Dog Voices, how that band came together, his view of the cover band scene and its history. Part two will examine his career with Dog Voices.

When did you start singing?

Rob Monte: I started singing in high school. I'd say, like, junior year where the guys I was hanging with, they all got into the guitar and Rush and everyone was picking up an instrument. Instead of going out and throwing a ball around, now that they had these instruments they were rehearsing and I was hanging with them. So, I was the only one not really playing anything. They (said), 'C'mon, sing, sing, sing.' So that's how I started.

It was horrible. (Laughs) I remember the first time I ever sang, I was, like, standing in a corner (with) some guys I knew in a basement. It was pretty hilarious.

And, you know, I was pretty much self-taught from there.

So, you were doing originals at first?

Actually, my first band was called Hemisphere, that was the name of a Rush album. Everybody was really big into Rush. Everybody I was hangin' with anyway. We started doing Rush covers, just to jam, you know. In the process learning how to write your own songs. Yeah, it all started with originals.

We played some high school talent shows and shit like that, um, Boys Clubs and stuff. It was really innocent, all originals, thinking we were going to be rock stars and stuff. We gave it our best shot, though. That band went through to college and then in college (William Paterson College) I started meeting more people, musicians and stuff.

I actually have a friend of mine who's in my jam band I do every Sunday, Betty Ford All-Stars it's called. It's just like a friend of mine, a guy from Big Orange Cone. Just musicians from bands in the circuit. Well, the drummer, I met him in college, he was in a cover band. I didn't even understand that in college, I was like, 'what, cover band?' He was, like, explaining it to me and that's when I started getting into covers. I was playing covers to get into clubs, but I was still writing originals all the time. That went all the way up until, like, the late '80's. You know, during Van Halen and all the Poison and all that. It got pretty close and we had some major label showcases.

It's the same old story everyone goes through. Everyone you talk to that's almost made it. They met with some record exec. They did this and that and blah, blah and it just didn't seem to pan out.

And, I almost gave it up. (I was) working for my brother at his shop. Another friend of mine told me, he was putting together a band and he needs a singer. They were going to get paid money to do a gig. Back then I was like, 'what?' When you do originals you don't get paid really. They give you tickets and you've got to sell them and from per hand what you sell, you get the money. But that's about it. He was offering me, like, 100 bucks to play a gig he got. You know he got it premature, didn't even have a band together. I was, like sure, and that's when I realized the scene was still around.

When I met my friend Billy in college, I didn't realize this was all going around. The whole scene with the Nerds, I hadn't even heard of the Nerds back then. That was like the early 90's, you know, I fell out of the loop.

What made you decide to play covers?

It kind of came from that period where you don't make it. You know every musician, unless they make it, and some of my friends, they're still trying to do it no matter how old they are, they're still trying. You hit a bump, you know. Did you ever see the movie "Spinal Tap?"

Yeah.

It's all a parody, but it's still true. You know guys get girlfriends and it disrupts the band and this and that and blah, blah. You know if you're dating a girl and she met you because you sing in a band. After four years, you didn't make it yet and you're still not settled, you know, have a job. When they start nudging you, you know, when are we going to get married? You know, guys start dropping, you start forgetting about that and getting a real job. Getting benefits and everything else. It gets depressing, especially if your trying as hard and long as you really want to. And you've got a dream and you start realizing it ain't gonna happen. A lot of these guys get depressed and move on with their lives. A lot of friends I meet still doing it in this capacity, with Dog Voices, they're just blown away.

They kind of live through me, they're happy that I'm still singing. I didn't make it big like Pearl Jam or Van Halen, but I'm still singing for a living. Instead of selling cars or selling insurance, too.

A lot of original musicians can't stand cover bands. They say, 'you sell out.' That's the whole difference, I'm still a singer, it's a job, but it's a great job. When my friends put this together I was, like you know what, I still want to sing. I may not make it, but I still want to sing. And I was like, 'lets just do covers.'

It wasn't like a wedding band. You know a wedding band, you're like a live DJ. We were playing clubs and jumping around. It's like a little version of the dream you had. That's when I started thinking that covers weren't so bad. I didn't expect to get to this point either. At least not for a living. You know, we're still playing. Yeah, that was back in like '91, '92.

Were you very successful when you started playing covers, or did it take a while?

You know, it's weird. I was told by my agent, Steve, that we were one of the most successful bands real quick.

What was the name of your first cover band?

The first cover band was Who Brought the Dog.

Oh, alright.

It was weird because back then, you know, the Nerds, Voices (band featuring future Dog Voices members), Bums in the Park, I didn't know they existed back then. I started checking out the competition and seeing what the other bands were doing. All these bands were very polished musicians. Back then, (in) the cover scene, the songs you had to cover were Van Halen and Yes and the Who. The songs were tough to cover. You know, it's hard to play those songs. The harmonies and everything, and they were all so polished.

Who Brought the Dog, we got our first booking without even having a band. The guy that started the band, he took a date without having a band. So we rehearsed and got together and played our first gig. The style just happened. We were very loose, we were drinking on stage, you know, fuckin' up songs, it was like a jam. For that time it was like a breath of fresh air. When everyone would go out to clubs they'd see, which was very entertaining, very tight, talented (bands). It was kind of separate from the crowd.

We were, like, guys from the crowd who decided to get up on stage and start playing. So, we took off. Next thing I knew, we're getting lines around the doors and this and that. We started makin' waves in the scene and that's when the agent who I'm with now gave me a call. I was kind of shocked that he had been hearing about us so soon.

It was relatively quick, you know. We worked, we worked hard at doing it. We used to go to the clubs, like now a lot of bands don't do that. The way I used to do it. Say we're playing Poor Billy's tomorrow. Last week when Big Orange Cone was playing there I told my band, c'mon, we're all going down to Poor Billy's and we're putting flyers all over the fuckin' cars, you know next week Who Brought the Dog is playing. You self-advertise and stuff like that. A lot of bands nowadays want to rehearse, get ready, and then they want to play Jenkinsons.

You try to keep it different. Nowadays it's saturated. It's all kind of the same, you know what I mean. It doesn't seem like there's anything that different right now. So it's like, if you're going to see a band like mine. A lot of people would like to see my band, than a band that's like mine, but not as good.

I feel bad for a lot of the bands now, because it's so hard. So hard to get where I'm at. You know, doing it for a living.

Is that something you've focused on in your career, being the audience members who play on the stage? Is this why you bring audience members up on stage with you?

It depends. You know sometimes its planned, a lot of times it's off-the-cuff, that's what still keeps it fresh for us. I've got to say that, I'm going like ten years doing this and, ah, you do get a little burnt, especially how much we work. I'm still working six days a week. I'm working Tuesday through Friday with Dog Voices and every Sunday I'm doing the open-mic jam. So it does tend to get a little burnt, like anything else, you know. But I still concentrate on doing that off-the-cuff thing, you know, bringing somebody on stage by accident.

The one thing that is constant is when we're on stage I constantly scope the crowd. I try to get a feel for what they're like. If they feel laid back or if they don't, if they're ready for a little rowdiness, you know what I mean? You've got to be able to read that.

That's really important. That's what a lot of bands don't have.

So if you feel like the crowd is more mellow, you'll try and be mellow?

Yeah. You've seen us play, I don't know if you notice. A lot of times I'll start playing and you'll see me run to they guys and say something. Or I've got some hand signals for different songs, you know.

If they're a little mellow and I had written a set of in-your-face, right from the get, I'll change it right up in a heartbeat. I'll start calling, you know, "Pride and Joy." Songs that are just there. Everybody kind of likes a southern rock song or songs that just kind of keep you mellow. We've got a large repertoire of songs that we fall back on. But it's definitely important to concentrate on what the crowd is like, see if they're rowdy or not. There's always groups of people who are out and they're a little rowdier than others. You know five or six that may be out for a birthday party, and whatever.

And, you know, it's easy. You can run up to that crew of people and start goofing around with them and getting them involved. They're going to be receptive because that's what they want. They went out that night to have a good time and goof on one of their friends who's having a birthday.

If I see four people sitting at a bar talking amongst themselves and I jump in the middle of them and start going, 'hey, what's up?' They look at me like, 'what the fuck are you doing. You know, get the fuck out.' That's happened to me a couple of times, you know, you live and learn. (They're like) 'Get the fuck off the bar, singer, get on stage.' It's like, oops! (Laughs) You know. But you've got to get a knack for that, to be able to read that shit.

Are there clubs and bars with different kinds of crowds that you see? Are some more rowdy or mellow?

Oh yeah, oh yeah, definitely. Right off the bat, I think of Nardi's (Long Beach Island). Nardi's is like a fraternity party times one hundred. It's insane, man. When you go to Nardi's, be prepared to be hot, sweaty, drink beer, have beer spilled on you. It's a place that you fit 50 people in and you pack in 200. It's just a blast. You know, there's never a fight in there, everybody's kind of happy. It's crazy, I mean, you know it's going to be crazy from the get go.

There's some clubs that we go to that are performing clubs. We played a club in Long Island this past week called Mulcahy's in Wantagh. It's a great club. Great sports bar, a big bar, but it's just that. You know, when I'm on stage that's where I stay. It's a huge stage, like five feet off the ground. When its packed there's like 2,000 people in there, you know what I mean. It's an entirely different show, different attitude you're going to have to have when you play.

Now I know. There's clubs that are planned out clubs to be rowdy and happy, it all depends on the staff, too. And there's clubs where there's formative stuff. At this point, I pretty much know all the clubs around. We're playing at a club in Philly next month, I've never played before. I hear its one of those rowdy, happy-go-lucky, fun kinds of clubs. But I'm going in prepared knowing that for the first time in I read the crowd. You know, I've never seen them before, so I see what the vibe is going to be like.

Definitely. Just like there's different bands, different clubs have a different vibe depending on what you want.

When you first started out, did you notice if the cover scene was slow or was it happening like it is today?

I think the cover scene was kind of happening. The cover scene's always been around. (Bon) Jovi's been in cover bands. Bruce did some covers. So there's always been the cover scene in Jersey. I guess back then it was more selective.

I remember trying to get into a club called Wally's when I first started and they weren't accepting new bands. Like, you had to audition to be in their club. So the owner had to come and see me play somewhere and see if we were worthy (enough) of a band to play in there. All the bands were good. You could go see Bums in the Park and Voices, the Nerds. There were a bunch of bands, I forget some of the names, and they were all good bands.

They had a certain standard of talent that they wanted in the room. So that was the hard part. There wasn't as many bands. There was a lot of bands out there, but the club owners and the club itself were more selective.

I always go to my agent I think that my band, Who Brought the Dog, like, fucked it up for everybody. Because we came out and were so unpolished. I'm telling you, there's some nights when we weren't good at all. It was just like the five of us got drunk and decided to go up there and play. But, it was breath of fresh air. So everybody started digging it. The one thing about this business is, if you're doing something that's going to make the club money, they're gonna stick with you. That's the bottom line.

We started drawing a lot of people that drank. So we started getting all these rooms that all these really high-classed polished acts were in and we're like a band of gypsies coming in and going nuts. So, I think it opened a lot of doors for a lot of bands that weren't as good, weren't as talented, were able to get these rooms. In a good way, we kind of lowered the standard. But, I think now it's harder. Now it's hard because there's too many bands.

The cover band scene today like you see on VH-1's Cover Wars with bands from Philly and Vegas, do you think that started here in Jersey?

I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. I think it's more of an East Coast thing. I can't really say where it started, but I definitely know Philly, Connecticut, Jersey. No where in New York really, not even Rockland County. Maybe they started on the Northeast coast, like a Jersey Shore kind of thing.

But that's a good question, I'd like to find out myself. I guess I should ask my agent. My agent was in bands for years, you know.

Why do you think Dog Voices is so successful now?

When I was in Who Brought the Dog we kind of made it up there. Then at one point it just got too crazy. We definitely got to the point where we were like, you know what, this is all fun, but we gotta start being good. And that's where it came as where, me as Monte had to stay as the maniac at a party or this and that and I needed a band behind me that's solid and good to offset all that. When we started playing bigger rooms, it just got to a point where it was a side show. You know everyone in the band was going nuts.

That band didn't understand the whole concept. So when I left them and joined Voices, it was a move where everyone was unsure, people took sides, so we had to start from scratch again as Dog Voices. We built that up, and when he had problems with some of the guys in the band, we had to fire them. You know, people thought we were dead in the water. And then a lot of up-and-coming bands started coming up; Big Orange Cone, Benjamins. So people kind of started following them and not really be sure where the hell we were going. So then we lost a lot of people and then we built it back up again. And here we are back again, probably bigger than we've ever been. We've been on "Cover Wars" and we did a lot of stuff.

I really think that our band is a lot more personable than some of the other bands. You know we do it and it is fun and it is a job, but I've made tons of friends. Just the other week, we played a gig and the people I met, we met at our gig. They got married, we played at their wedding. They're, like, friends, friends forever. I was over their house, they had a house warming party and invited the band over.

And that, I think, is maybe why the band has lasted so long, you know been on top for so long. Because there's people who genuinely like the band as people. You know, not just to go see the band.

When people come who you haven't seen in a long time and you recognize their face you want to be, like, thanks for coming. And you get to know them. Some people you get to know and you see them at shows. People like the people I was talking about. They become real good friends. They know me, they know where I live, I've crashed at their house. They've helped me out a couple of times. When I've had family tragedies and stuff, they were at the funerals. It's cool.

Plus, I think when you're around for a long time, you get a certain amount of respect. It's been ten years now. It's tough to do this ten years. I've ran a figurative total on how many clubs have opened and closed since we started and how many bands tried to start and are done. So I think it's a combination of both.

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