Bob Burger

His Debut Album Is A Crowning Achievement

Fans of live music who attend shows around their local scene will eventually come to know certain players by sight, if not by name. Those faces are the musicians who other players call on when they need a talented player for their band or songwriting project.

The Jersey shore scene is no exception. There are many performers who have built stellar reputations and strong working relationships and can be found on numerous records or on stage at venue after venue. Some of these players never step out on their own, while others manage to balance their own career with their collaborations.

While Bob Burger has just released his first solo record, "Cymbals at Dawn," fans are already familiar with his career in various forms. Local New Jersey fans may have seen him on his regular gigs performing with Asbury Juke Bobby Bandiera, who he's played with since the later 1980s, both as an acoustic duo and with his full band. His partnership with Bandiera even led to high-profile gigs backing-up Bruce Springsteen during charity benefits at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park.

In addition to performing, Burger is also a prolific songwriter, with some of his most notable work recorded by writing partner Glen Burtnik, who has included Burger/Burtnik tracks both on his own solo records, and his work with the band Styx. When that band was looking for good new material, Burtnik drew upon his work with Burger. The results were Styx classics such as "Edge of the Century" (which earned Burger a Gold Record) and "It Takes Love to Make Love." One of their collaborations, "My Crowing Achievement," has become one of the most popular songs recorded for "Cymbals at Dawn".

Now releasing his debut disc, Burger has assembled twelve tracks that show his range both as a performer and a songwriter. In addition to the Burtnik track, there is a second cover, "Ring of Fire," to complement Burger's original work. Chorus and Verse spoke to him about why it took so long for him to finally press his own music into aluminum, the musicians who worked with him on Cymbals, and what he's going to do now that the recording is finally complete.

You've been performing and writing with well-known New Jersey performers, like Bobby Bandiera and Glen Burtnik, since the late 1980s, but you've just now released your debut CD, "Cymbals at Dawn". Why was the time finally right to release an album, and is this something you've wanted to do for years, or a recent evolution?

I guess it was something I should have done a long time ago. Although the timing did seem to be right in that I had been doing a lot of acoustic shows which pushed me into the concept for the CD. The idea was do it as live as possible using just acoustic guitars and bass as the basic rhythm tracks.

Originally, wasn't the album supposed to have a different title?

Yes, but I changed it just because I thought that "Cymbals" had a better ring.

In an interview with "The Stone Pony Online Newsletter" back in January 2002, you mentioned that Glen Burtnik was contributing "a number of songs," though only one made it to the CD.

Actually, I apologized to Glen for only including one of our songs. I just had too many others I wanted to do. Next time I'll definitely use more Burtnik/Burger tunes.

It is a relief to finally have something in aluminum to show for all of the hard work?

Actually, a little of a let down. Making it was the really fun part.

Were all of the changes and the long road to get here just the perfectionist in you causing trouble, or did your vision of what you were trying to do keep changing?

Well, the kernel of the record was done in two days when PK Lavengood, Rob Tanico, and I recorded all 12 basic tracks live in Plinky Giglio's studio. After that, I liked it so much I knew I had to put some serious work into making all the following tracks and sonic production live up to the vibe of those sessions. I never wanted it to be "perfect". But I admit to some pretty detailed tweaking to make things sound right to my ear without losing the original mood.

"Cymbals at Dawn" has eleven tracks, one you co-authored with Glen Burtnik, in addition to a cover. Was all of the material written recently specifically for this project, or are these songs that you've penned over the years and picked and choose to record?

It was a mix. A couple songs are really quite old. But most were written over the last couple years. One was written [a] couple days before we started recording.

Talk about "My Crowning Achievement," which is the track you co-wrote with Glen. Again, was this written specifically for this album, or an older track you wanted to use? Did you have any hesitation including a collaborative song on an album that's one of your first public efforts at establishing a solo identity as a performer?

Oh, no. Glen actually recorded it first and put it on his "Palookaville" CD several years ago. I had no hesitation about using it at all. Hopefully, I put a little different spin on it compared with Glen's original version.

Let's go over your history a bit. Fans who know you best are probably familiar with your long-time membership in Bobby Bandiera's band. When and how did you first come to audition for his band, and how soon after you met did you know that it would be such a successful and productive relationship?

Lee Mrowicki from the Stone Pony recommended me for audition to Bobby when Hal Selzer was leaving. Bobby and I have many of the same musical roots so playing together was pretty natural. I've really only been a part-time member of his band, but I've been doing it longer than anybody else!

Hard to say when I realized we'd have such a long-standing relationship.

You are quoted in "Beyond the Palace," as saying that the only song you've ever co-written for Bobby's band is "C'mon Caroline," which happens to be one of his most popular songs. Is it a different relationship with someone who you've played so many times with, as opposed to someone like Burtnick, where you've done a lot more songwriting together? Can you define why you've enjoy playing with one person so much, and writing with another?

Interesting question. My relationships with Bobby and Glen are different. But that's just because they're different musicians with different aims. I think I've been able to fill a hole that was needed in each situation. Lucky for me, I'm versatile. If I couldn't play I probably wouldn't work with Bob, and if I couldn't write I probably wouldn't work with Glen.

How often are you still writing with Glen these days? Is "My Crowning Achievement," payback for all of the writing that you've done for his records? Can you tell us if you're writing any material for a new Glen Burtnick album any time soon?

Writing with Glen was a little sparse while he was out on the road with Styx. However, we tend to write very quickly and still managed to collaborate in spurts (often via tapes and email). Surprisingly to me, I think I co-wrote four or so songs on the new CD he has been working on. I'd expect to see the CD out in the next six months.

While we're talking about your musical collaborators, you put together a great cast of musicians for the recording of "Cymbals at Dawn". Guitarist PK Lavengood is well-known to fans of John Eddie as a member of his band, and Rob Tanico is also the bassist for Highway 9. How do you know PK and Rob, and would you like to take a few moments to sing their praises?

I've known PK for many years but just reconnected with him not long before the Cymbals sessions. I met PK through Marc Swersky (a writing partner) doing song demos for publishing.

I met Rob by playing at the Celtic Cottage where he likes to hang.

I really can't say enough good things about either player. Both were a great inspiration to my CD and both came up with really, really cool parts. PK and I sync pretty well in the studio. I know it sounds stupid but there really were times when I'd hear something in my head and he would just play it naturally.

How about the other players, Pinky Giglio, Joe Bellia and Doc-Nu. Can you introduce them all to our readers, and give us a little background on why you wanted them to assist with the record?

Sure. I met Plinky through Glen (he's played keys and recorded with Glen for years). On reflection, I knew that Plink was THE guy to help me record everything. He's worked on a million records and has impeccable ears. He caught onto the vibe I was going for very early on and followed it all the way through.

Joe Bellia is the great drummer behind Bobby Bandiera and Southside Johnny. Joe is also a great guy and brought a very musical approach to the drumming. He also didn't mind my request for him to play a three-piece kit with one mike. Joe also snapped the CD cover photo.

Doc-Nu is the turntable man with Borialis. I also met Doc with Justin Rubenstein (Borialis) hanging at the Celtic. Doc pulled in his hip-hop influence but made it blend with my acoustics; really helped put in a different twist here and there. One of the kick drum tracks is just Doc scratching some old Disco record.

We'd be remiss not to include a question or two about when you played with Bruce Springsteen at the Stone Pony a while back, when the Bobby Bandiera Band backed him up for some charity shows. When on stage with Springsteen, are you immediately aware that he's the talent and the star that he is, and do you feel something special as a musician to be in that environment when you're performing?

Yes and yes. Bruce creates an atmosphere that you can cut with a knife, and his amazing talent just emanates. The cool thing is that when you're working with him it seems to rub off a little. When Bruce takes the stage the whole band gets lifted up with him. Everybody plays better. It's pretty much magic.

Give us a little background about how you prepare for a gig like that. How far in advance do you know that you'll be playing, and when are you given a set list to prepare for? Does a show like that really bring out the professional musician in you, or do the nerves kick in for the entire gig?

Bruce gave us 15 songs to work out a week or so before the gig. But, the night before, he called out 15 more!

Preparing was a lot of cramming but, in the end, you just have to go with your instincts. The best preparation is playing with Bobby Bandiera, where you have to be on your toes at all times. I think those shows do bring out the best. It was just fun, not nervousness for me.

Let's finish off with some insight into your songwriting. Do you write autobiographically, or are you more comfortable writing about things you see around you more than from a personal perspective? Is there a real "Madalynn" from the first track on the album, and when you say "I" in your lyrics, are you Bob Burger or speaking in character as someone else?

I guess I write autobiographically. But I don't really write literally anymore. Meaning, I mix different experiences with different people into the same song. I sometimes change the gender, reverse roles, stuff like that. Sometimes the first person is me and sometimes not.

Although, I really don't write "characters" too much. Madalynn is cool-sounding name, right?

What's been the reaction to the new songs that you've performed live? Are there any songs that have gotten particularly good reactions from the crowds? Do you plan to do more solo shows to support the record?

It's been really great. I get more requests and better responses all the time. Most requests are for "Over The Edge," "Vintage Tweed" and "My Crowning Achievement".

Yes, I want to play as much as possible to support the CD.

Is your goal with this album to establish yourself further as a performer and musician in your own right, or do you think that this could help to further showcase your songwriting chops? Are you open to allowing other artists to re-record material from "Cymbals at Dawn" or are these songs special now as being strictly yours?

All of the above. I guess I think of myself as a performer/musician and it's nice to step out as a solo artist. However, I'd certainly love to hear some covers of the Cymbals tunes. It would be a little lonely if the tunes were "strictly" mine.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.