Bucks-based band, Birdie Num Num and the Spirit Squad, release their seventh album “Phoney Beatlemania”
By Samantha Bambino
The world of Hollywood isn’t always so glamorous. The industry has a way of sucking in the most talented artists and spitting them out without a backward glance. Bucks County native Joe Ujj understands the darkness that lies beneath the spotlights, and it was his personal experiences that inspired his band Birdie Num Num and the Spirit Squad’s seventh album, Phoney Beatlemania.
Birdie Num Num and the Spirit Squad has rocked the Bucks County, Philadelphia and New York areas for 19 years, and has seen a whopping 37 members come and go. When Ujj started the psychedelic rock band, it was community-based, which is where the “Spirit Squad” portion of the name came from.
“Whoever felt the spirit could play,” he said.
While Ujj remains the only original member, the current Spirit Squad, Joe Montone, JP Wasicko, RJ Gilligan and newest and youngest member, Tim Leslie, helped create the band’s most dynamic album to date. The inspiration behind Phoney Beatlemania comes from Ujj’s experiences in the ’90s when his band signed with a label. For most, this seems like a dream come true, but not for Ujj.
“It was all I wanted since I was 5, and once I got it I realized I couldn’t deal with it,” he said.
Reflecting on the industry, Ujj calls it a depressing business as he witnessed friends get deceived by labels. According to him, if a record doesn’t do well in the market, the label will “shelve it” and not pay to promote it. The artist ultimately ends up owing the label thousands of dollars and gets sued in many instances.
The writing process for Phoney Beatlemania began with Ujj and Montone in a motel room on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, in the middle of a winter snowstorm. While writing, Ujj started to contemplate his career.
“I was questioning why I was still playing rock music,” he said.
But it was these doubts and disillusionment of the entertainment industry that created this catchy rock record that mocks the business of making rock records. The opening track, “This Isn’t What You Said It Was,” is an autobiographical account of the seedy dark side of the entertainment industry and how you have to “schmooze” your way to the top.
A standout track for Ujj is “Get Into The Night,” which was written while playing a parody version of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” The song chronicles a young starlet who wants to make it big in Hollywood, but gets caught up in the industry and is forced to leave within a year.
“Everything you do is under a microscope,” he said. “It’s a rough life, it’s not a normal life.”
Despite the dark theme underlying the track, “Get Into The Night” is very danceable, thanks to Leslie’s fast, almost manic, drumming. Leslie was the first to hear the new songs when Ujj and Montone returned from the motel room, and with his jazz background and history playing in Latin bands, he brought a different sound to Birdie Num Num and the Spirit Squad than anything Ujj previously recorded.
Although Leslie, who met Ujj at a garage sale, is the youngest member at 24 years old, he calls his transition into the Spirit Squad “seamless.”
“I’m just following the musical journey,” Leslie said. “I’ve always gravitated toward older generations.”
While Leslie added his flair and gave the songs a lot of movement, their second drummer, Wasicko, added solid and steady parts mixed with the original drum machine the songs were written with. Bass player Gilligan’s parts became funky tidbits to help the beats explode to the forefront, Ujj threw in sparse guitar from a 1968 Harmony Rocket, while keyboardist Montone added spacey synthesizer soundscapes.
Phoney Beatlemania was recorded at Ujj’s Robot Recordings in New Hope. Once he left Hollywood and returned to Bucks County as a teenager, he created this “self-contained organization” from scratch. He writes, records and produces for his band and his friends, and isn’t pressured by the time and cost of being in a professional studio.
On May 13, the band threw a record release party at Triumph Brewery in New Hope. After playing in the area for so many years, they’ve gained a loyal yet very diverse following. Everyone from kids to men in their late 60s can be seen in the crowd, which reflects the fact that almost every decade is represented in the band members.
After getting a taste of the business years ago and spending endless hours in a van traveling to gigs, Ujj is perfectly content staying close to the Bucks County music scene.
“It’s a hub,” he said. “It’s a special place to be.” ••