By Howard Whitman
You have to respect Crack the Sky for, if nothing else, tenacity. In an age when many long-running bands have given up altogether on creating new studio albums, citing internet theft and general marketplace disinterest, the group, which formed in Weirton, West Virginia in 1975, is not just putting out one new album in 2018 — Crack the Sky actually released two new albums on August 24, both on the band’s new label, Loud & Proud Records.
Granted, one of the new releases, Crackology, is not technically new; it’s a disc of new studio recordings of previously released songs, while Living in Reverse is made up of all-new material. Regardless, on both albums, Crack the Sky surges with the vitality and energy of a young band, bringing so much “crack” to the older songs that Crackology sounds just as fresh as Living in Reverse.
Like any veteran band, Crack the Sky has had its ups and downs over the decades, with stops and starts, personnel changes, and the other pitfalls that can go with the rock life. But 2018 finds the band firing on all thrusters as it hits the concert trail to promote the new releases, with three original members still in the lineup—singer-songwriter John Palumbo, guitarist Rick Witkowski, and drummer Joey D’Amico, joined by Dave DeMarco (bass guitar), Bobby Hird (guitar) and Glenn Workman (keyboards). Goldmine recently spoke with Palumbo about what to expect on the new albums, what keeps the band running after decades in the music biz, and what is to come from this group that just won’t quit.
Goldmine: John, one of the topics the magazine wanted to address in this piece was the answer to the question, “Where are they now?” So, where are you now?
John Palumbo: We just finished signing to a new label and we cut two records that (came out) in August. And that’s where we are. We play maybe 10, 11 dates a year and hopefully now, with the new label, we should get on a tour with somebody. We’re still alive and still around.
GM: Crack the Sky went on hiatus in the late 1980s, with sporadic activity in the decades that followed. How long have you been back full-force with the band?
JP: I got my doctorate and I took off for about 12 years, and then went I back to music. Can’t get away from it (laughs).
GM: What compelled you to get back to the band and back to music?
JP: What happened was, one of the guys called me up and said he needed dental work (laughs) and it was going to be very expensive, and he asked if we could do a show. And we said, “Of course.” So we did one show, and then we all just had such a great time with it that we put it back together. I know it’s a weird story, but it’s the truth.
GM: You have the two new releases coming out. One of them, Crackology, consists of new recordings of old songs. What prompted you to redo those?
JP: The label asked or it. It was not our idea, it was their idea, and they said it would probably be a good thing for people to find out what those songs were about so that the people who haven’t heard of us would get an opportunity to hear the early stuff. So we recut it.
GM: How do these new versions differ from the original tracks?
JP: They certainly have more energy. We’ve been at it now for a while, so we didn’t have the studio nerves and all of that stuff from our early years. We just went on full attack.
GM: I listened to some of the new recordings on Crackology, and they sound very fresh, like new material.
JP: I think we tried to put that kind of energy into it and were able to be successful with that.
GM: You also did an album of new songs, Living in Reverse?
JP: Right. It was finished before Crackology, but they held it until the end of August.
GM: Both albums were released on the same day, August 24—is that correct?
JP: You may know more than I do.
GM: It’s a cool idea.
JP: Yeah, it is, and credit goes to the label for that.
GM: In an age where a lot of bands are not even bothering with new studio recordings because new music is perceived as a tough sell, what is driving you guys to keep creating and to develop new music?
JP: I have to write. It’s what I do, and I love doing it. There’s a drive there that I really have little control over. I need to do it. And luckily, I’m surrounded with people who are just terrific musicians and they love having original stuff to work on. So, we all get together and put forth our best effort on the stuff, and try not to think about how lousy the industry is right now.
GM: And you have retained your loyal fan following, right?
JP: Oh yeah! We have pockets (of fans) everywhere. We just need something to put them all together.
GM: Rick Witkowski, guitarist for Crack the Sky, is also a producer. Would it be accurate to say he drives the band in the studio?
JP: Yeah. He produces and he’s got a studio. Four or five of us have a studio, so a lot of work we do on our own and then turn it over to Rick when we’re all done recording and he puts his touches to it.
GM: A lot of bands work that way these days.
JP: Geographically, we have to. We’re all over the map.
GM: I hear you have a unique way of developing songs in which you put together your song demos on your own, and then the band fleshes them out. How does that process work?
JP: Like I said, we’ve all got studios. I stay here in my studio. Once I’ve written a song, then I put together a very finished demo with most, but not all, of the parts (worked out)—a lot of the parts, I should say; that’s fair. And then the two guitarists, Ricky and Bobby, get together live and they work on their guitar parts, and sometimes my stuff will go away and sometimes it will stay there, and then they just go to work with Joey, the drummer. So, it’s usually the three of them that get together at the studio there, and tear the demos apart (laughs).
GM: Are you typically happy with what they do to your songs?
JP: Pretty much, yes. Sometimes I get surprised. They surprised me with “Talk Talk,” with the (addition of) banjo. That was like, “There’s a banjo there!” (laughs). I was very surprised, but it was so beautifully played—Bobby played that, and I said, “You know what? That actually works.” It took me a day. The first time I heard it, I said, “No, that’s never going to happen.” Then after I listened to it and went back to it fresh, I was like “You know, that’s a good idea.”
GM: Crack the Sky has been categorized in a lot of different ways over the years. At different points, the band has been labeled the new Steely Dan, prog rock, jazz rock, classic rock, etc. Do you feel that has helped the band, or hindered it?
JP: I think it’s been kind of helpful. We’re still around and there are a lot of bands that get categorized and then you don’t hear from them anymore. We’ve still got a following, we’re still around, we’re still able to play. I think that people still don’t know what we are. I think prog is probably the closest thing that you can tag us with.
GM: Progressive rock can be anything, right?
JP: Yeah. We take off on things. It’s not really pop, and it’s not really heavy metal. It fits someplace in the prog market, I guess.
GM: Didn’t Crack the Sky play at the Rites of Spring (RoSfest) progressive rock festival?
JP: Yeah. That was interesting! That’s serious prog stuff and we were probably the hardest rock in that place, but it was nice. It was a lot of fun, we met a lot of good people. It was really our first exposure to that, and it was very interesting.
GM: Why do you feel Crack the Sky has lasted for more than 40 years and maintained its audience while other bands of your vintage have not?
JP: I think a lot of it, believe it or not, is because we never had that one hit record. And so we work very hard on each album, and I think the fact that we do continue to put out product and we don’t rely on old stuff or anything like that, with the exception of this Crackology thing—which as I explained to you, makes a lot of sense. But we’re sneaking a new one in right with it.
GM: You’re keeping it fresh.
JP: Yes. I really believe that since we haven’t had that one hit across the board, I think that’s got a lot to do with why we’re still here.
GM: You have a very deep catalog. You’ve put out a lot of albums over the years. Do you touch upon all of the eras in your live shows?
JP: No, I don’t think so. We stay with who we are. But I have a low threshold of boredom, I really do. So when I’m considering a new album, it’s usually something new like this latest one, working with electronics and a lot of different kinds of things. Yes, I like to keep it fresh.
GM: What can we expect from the coming tour?
JP: You know, we’ll do our best. That’s pretty much it. I’m not sure if we’re going to have the horns with us [Note: Crack the Sky frequently tours with a horn section]. You never know when they’re going to show up.
GM: I have a CD you put out in 1992 called Cruel Shoes.
JP: Oh, that was my solo thing.
GM: Did you see that as an extension of your work with Crack the Sky?
JP: No, that was totally different. And in doing a solo record, I tried to not make it Crack the Sky-ish at all. No, that’s a completely different ballgame.
GM: What is your vision for Crack the Sky moving forward?
JP: I have no idea. I think I’m ready to start writing another record already. But I have to go slow, because like I said, I get real bored. By the time I get the songs finished and we get them recorded, I’m kind of sick of them, you know? (laughs) So I have to watch out that I don’t get started too early.
GM: How do you keep the work with the band interesting for yourself?
JP: I try to stretch out. If I find myself in a hole or doing something that we’ve already done, I’ll throw it away and just try to keep an edge to everything. A fresh edge.
GM: Do you see Crack the Sky still going in 5 or 10 years from now, sustaining the band’s productivity and your following?
JP: Yeah. I don’t see us retiring yet. Five or 10 years, that’s a long stretch, I don’t know if we’ll even be alive by then (laughs). But I don’t even consider stopping.
GM: But you’re still having fun doing it?
JP: Yes. As long as that happens, then we’ll just keep going. I just want to thank people for staying with us. That’s truly terrific. Our fans are really great.