THE BLACK HOLLIES: YOU LOOK-A JUST LIKE-A MY SON
The Black Hollies come from the psychedelic state of New Jersey and put chocolate and hot sauce but not crack in their bodies from time to time. They don’t exactly sound like the Shades, the Rovin’ Flames or the Cavemen but they probably have those 45s. Bassist/singer Justin Morey takes a break from the chocolate factory to talk. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You work in a chocolate factory—is that the most psychedelic day job possible?
Justin Angelo Morey (bass/vocals): It is and it isn’t. It is in the sense that it enables me to be creative. I’ve been doing this on and off since I was 19 years old. I work really closely with the owners. They’re basically like family to me so they’re really supportive of what I do. So I feel really lucky to have that in my life. No one’s here except me right now, so it’s an opportunity for me to make some cash. It’s kind of psychedelic in a way but it’s something that when I first started I honestly had no intention of accumulating any sort of knowledge.
So you’re an involuntary chocolatier?
Justin Angelo Morey: Pretty much. I just did this to buy records, clothes and instruments. The basics of being young and stuff. And here I am now—72 years old and I’m still doing it.
Have you ever gone in there and whipped up some hard-ass bootleg chocolate? Stuff that you couldn’t sell to the public because it’s just too chocolate-y?
Justin Angelo Morey: Or too psychedelic? Me and Wylie, the lead guitar player, tossed around an idea because the owner of the chocolate factory is actually his ex-stepfather, so he knows this business inside out as well. Nothing ever came to fruition just because of timing and everything. Usually when I’m here I have to do so many things that it’s really the furthest from my mind. Like if song ideas pop into my head I have to write on anything that’s available to try to remember it.
You ever have to rescue a co-worker who fell in the chocolate tank?
Justin Angelo Morey: No—however I saw a little Mexican boy running around up here and I think he almost fell into the peanut butter vat so that was a little scary. Yeah, that was kind of like an Amber Alert thing. He was trying to dip something in this big gigantic machine that’s spinning. He’s like the son of one of the workers and he comes in after school. So we almost lost Felipe to the peanut butter vat.
Does this happen to be a haunted chocolate factory at all?
Justin Angelo Morey: It’s funny that you would mention that. It is slightly haunted. They purchased this building in the early ’90s and prior to that it was probably like a bowling alley in the roaring ’20s. You can still actually see in certain parts of the building where they would have the line-up for the pins. So it’s got some really old vibe and I guess at one time it was a gigantic bingo hall for the people in this town. So there’s some really freaky shit that goes on. I’m not going to lie. I definitely hear some things about that myself or things moving, let’s just say.
You ever see a full-torso free-floating vaporous apparition?
Justin Angelo Morey: I haven’t seen anything but every now and again when I see something move, I like to refer to this ghost as Uncle Jimmy. Uncle Jimmy and I are working today and he’s being really kind to me. He’s not bothering me. He’s just letting me do my thing.
The living could take a lesson.
Justin Angelo Morey: It’s actually really weird that you would bring that up because…is it haunted? I don’t know but I definitely see suspicious things every now and again like things moving. Not necessarily moving like gigantic objects, but you know, things being mislocated at certain times and you know where you’d put them the night before.
It’s pretty awesome that your day job is producing paranormal chocolate for the world. It’s a real special thing.
Justin Angelo Morey: I want people to eat, enjoy and have a really good experience. Nothing to do with music or anything.
What is the best hot sauce ever made?
Justin Angelo Morey: That’s a tough question because I feel like there are so many out there that I haven’t had the opportunity to experience myself. At one point I thought Dave’s Insanity Sauce was pretty good.
What’s the Scoville rating on that?
Justin Angelo Morey: I don’t know the Scoville unit off-hand but I know that somebody had given me a gift set with ten different variations and then you work your way up to the mothership so I kind of stayed away from the insanity one—I’ll be honest—for like a month. Eventually, running out of hot sauces, I had to go there. The first time I tried it, it was pretty hot but I’ll be honest, if you mix it up with food and stuff after building up a tolerance you wind up becoming immune to it. But there was this one experience…my girlfriend and I went to this restaurant in Jersey City and I had requested a hot sauce so they brought out two bottles and I wish I could remember the name of the company because I put some on the refried beans, put some on my burrito or whatever, took a bite, and you know, we were talking or whatever… and she looked at the refried beans and it almost looked like they were disintegrating before our eyes.
Is this Drano sauce or something?
Justin Angelo Morey: That’s what it looked like and when I realized that I was like—holy shit. She was like, ‘You’ve got to watch out for that stuff.’ And I thought, yeah, you’re right, because I’m putting this stuff in my body and you hear these horrible stories about people having their stomach linings eaten away. So witnessing that kind of freaked me out a bit.
What’s the most painful thing you’ve ever put in your mouth?
Justin Angelo Morey: Definitely making a pot of chili and putting way too many habaneros inside. That was a life-altering experience especially when it was trying to make its way out of me. There was nothing that could cool that part of my body down. It was actually very excruciating so…
What’s the lesson you learned from that? Be careful on the way up and the way down?
Justin Angelo Morey: Monitor how much you put in and go easy. You can always add more but you can’t take it out. And you have to wait for it to pass through. That was probably the weirdest experience and, I kid you not, it was excruciating. It hurt so much.
Do these kinds of brutal food experiences cross over to songwriting?
Justin Angelo Morey: Like songs about pain and stuff? Not really. My songs are not necessarily about pushing fluids out. But more or less about love. Love’s a painful thing. It can be painful. It can be really, really thoroughly euphoric at times. I tend to like the part of love when it’s very euphoric. I mean, obviously.
Could we rank your instances of heartbreak against your instances of painful dining? Could we put a Scoville scale on heartbreak?
Justin Angelo Morey: We probably could. I think it depends on the individual. Some people don’t give a shit and bounce right back from it and they don’t care and it isn’t until years later that that wall comes down and their world is shattered, you know? And then there are people like me who just kind of learn through it.
It seems like you’ve done pretty good learning from things in life.
Justin Angelo Morey: I feel like I have to go through hell and then learn to never do it again, so I feel I have to experience it.
What’s the closest you’ve ever come to buying crack on the street?
Justin Angelo Morey: Oh wow, that was a really crazy experience. I mean, it’s not even a joke, that’s how insane we were. Where I grew up—and I live not too far from the neighborhood where I grew up—is pretty, pretty, pretty bad. I mean, Google ‘Greenville’ or, as they like to refer to it, ‘The Hill.’ The Hill is definitely a rough place. They try to contain it and they try to boast in downtown Jersey City, ‘Oh, this is the greatest. It’s changing!’ But Greenville isn’t that far away from downtown Jersey City. I mean, everything’s totally close and it’s a bad neighborhood. We were driving through. We came home from tour and were pretty much wondering what the hell we were going to do, kind of wandering aimlessly.
Chasing that tour euphoria?
Justin Angelo Morey: Pretty much, yeah. We had a rehearsal space which was the only thing we had paid for for the next three months. We barely had any money in our pockets and we were beginning to freak out. How the hell were we going to pay for this? I’ll tell you, being a musician or being an artist, it’s twenty-three hours of bullshit and one hour where you get to play and have a really good time. It’s really, really nutty stuff. So, of course, within those twenty-three hours you’re just constantly stressing about shit and just figuring stuff out and I think we had run out of some really, really good grass or something…
So you took a…well, not quite a lateral move…
Justin Angelo Morey: We were driving around Jersey City trying to figure out something and it was like—God, the state that we were in, we might as well just buy crack and call it a day.
Were you the guy who brought this up?
Justin Angelo Morey: I think it was a mutual thing. I think we were both kind of bouncing ideas of each other, John and myself.
I’m curious about the genesis of this conversation.
Justin Angelo Morey: I think we were just feeling the weight of the world. Like, how are we going to pay for this? How are we going to survive? How are we going to do this? And it was just one of those moments of desperation. You know, nothing seems good. What the hell is going on? How could this be? It was one of those moments people ponder and really just begin to get darker and darker. The conversation doesn’t seem to get any ray of sunshine.
How did fate intervene?
Justin Angelo Morey: I think we finally just said, ‘You know what…’
‘Let’s not buy crack?’
Justin Angelo Morey: I know so many kids who got hooked. It was really weird growing up in that neighborhood. When crack came in, there were kids that were my age, like in the sixth or seventh grade, that all of a sudden no longer went to school and were hanging out in the streets with these thirty year old junkies. And seeing that, walking home from school and being like, ‘Wow, you were in my history class. What the fuck happened to you? You look like garbage!’ A couple of these kids are dead now, obviously. I remember seeing that and thinking I never wanted to go down that road ever. Maybe one of those things kind of popped in. Like, ‘John, you know what? Can you take me to Prince of Pizza? I just want to get fucking pizza right now. Fuck it.’ And I think I spent three dollars on two slices and a Coke. They had a deal. This place called Prince of Pizza in McGinley Square in Jersey City.
The pizza place that saved your life. They should put that in the ad.
Justin Angelo Morey: Yeah, because who knows what could have happened with the mindset that we were in? You never know. But it’s no joke. I believe in being honest. I’m not going to hold back but yeah, it was really scary. I mean, I haven’t revisited that road. Obviously, I go down Desperation Avenue all the time but now I look for hot sauce instead.
What’s the smelliest physical contact you’ve ever experienced with another human being?
Justin Angelo Morey: Oh God. There will be times on the road when Wylie won’t wear deodorant or he’ll forget to and, you know, it’s kicking. It’s definitely kicking. Especially if he’s lifting his arm up to do something on guitar or it’s the end of the night and I’m stuck in the back of the van loading up…
Do you think he does it on purpose to brutalize you? Like an alpha-dog thing?
Justin Angelo Morey: I honestly don’t think he goes out of his way to do it. I think it’s just pure ‘Aw shit, I forgot to put it on. Oh well, what can you do? I’ll be alright. Nobody else will smell it.’ Until it starts kicking you in the teeth. It’s a pretty, pretty brutal scent. However, I will say that on the last couple of days on the tour, I caved in. I never eat McDonald’s because my body just rejects it.
Like the hot sauce?
Justin Angelo Morey: It’s like the worst thing ever. But I completely caved in because John got something called the Chicken Select or something. I didn’t think anything of it. I was starving and we had three hours to go on this drive to Ohio and I kid you not, the gas—because my body was rejecting this—the gas was so bad, it smelled like I was digesting rusty utensils.
Not only your digestive system but your immune system is getting in on this?
Justin Angelo Morey: Everything! Everybody’s teaming up and ganging up against me. And the people that are suffering, not only myself, because clearly I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m actually producing this,’ it’s like, everybody in the van…You can tell when Wylie starts getting pissed off because he’ll start opening the window with his feet to get the air in and you’ll see the two guys in the front—it’s usually John and Nick who are driving—it’s almost like simultaneously, the windows go down immediately once it reached the front. I will tell you, it’s the most disgusting smell ever. I mean, obviously worse than Wylie.
Way worse than the chocolate factory?
Justin Angelo Morey: I tell you, it’s so crazy, you just go away for a couple days, you come back here and it hits you in the face, the smell, the intensity of chocolate. I never realize it because I guess I become used to it when I’m not on the road as often. I’m here for weeks at a time.
Do you think these tour stories are going to ruin your image in the press? I swear that everything I read about you had the word ‘dapper’ in it.
Justin Angelo Morey: No, I just think everyone’s human. I dare you to find the person with the golden asshole, you know what I mean? Or the person who for some reason produces sweet smelling armpit odor. I think just men in general tend to smell more than women.
I was reading this story about you guys hanging out in the attic and reading books and listening to music and that’s how the band started. But if this kind of moment of inspiration comes in the attic, how did you guys not end up becoming exterminators or guys who put in insulation? How did you get on this path and not another attic-related activity?
Justin Angelo Morey: I’m really enjoying this interview. You’re definitely one of the more fun people I’ve spoken to in a while. I don’t know. This is a true story. When we were trying to figure out who was going to play drums, before Scott, the original drummer of the Black Hollies came, we actually had a friend of ours—my friend Eric—who is actually a professional plumber now, you know, played music in grammar school and high school but did it just for fun, never really to try and do anything, he came over to do plumbing work on John’s mother’s house while we were messing around in the attic. So he’s doing plumbing work, cutting pipe or whatever, soldering it or ‘sweating’ it as they call it, and eventually he comes up to the attic and there’s a drum kit there and we wound up playing with him for… it almost seemed like the job didn’t get done because he wound up playing with us, which was really funny.
Rock ‘n’ roll screws up your plumbing.
Justin Angelo Morey: It’s a good thing they sold the house when they did, because they sold it shortly after and I’m sure a good amount of plumbing work had to be done or redone.
Do you want to apologize to some anonymous New Jersey family for destroying the plumbing that they were so hopeful about?
Justin Angelo Morey: No because me and John were pissed off that someone actually bought the house so when we drive past it, we actually hate them even though we’ve never met them, don’t know what they look like, don’t know who they are. They could be the world’s greatest family, they could feed the homeless, they could clothe the needy, whatever, but we hate them just because we can no longer play in the attic.
You just stare out the car windows in silent hatred?
Justin Angelo Morey: Like that roach in the Orkin commercial. You know when he’s trying to deliver pizzas? I always think that that’s like me trying to sneak into someone’s house.
Have you ever snuck into someone’s house in real life?
Justin Angelo Morey: I think I remember my first girlfriend inviting me over and the only way I could stay over—I think we were fourteen, fifteen, something like that—the only way I could do that was to climb in through her window and I remember the neighbors… in Jersey City, the houses are so close together and I was nervous that we would get caught. Like her parents were going to hear it. And it wasn’t like a short thing. I literally had to hang and pull myself up and as I got closer she had to pull me in. It was definitely noisy. Her parents probably knew what was going on.
Is that the most acrobatics you ever went through in the pursuit of love?
Justin Angelo Morey: I feel like with my current girlfriend, I would definitely do anything to make her happy so I feel like if she wanted me to do something that would involve some kind of acrobatics I would definitely do it for her to win her love. That’s just the truth.
Do you think she’s going to read this and come up with something really big?
Justin Angelo Morey: Yeah, she’s really smart like that. She’s definitely extremely intelligent and a cute little smart-ass too, so she’ll probably definitely run with this.
I’m happy to have a hand in punishing you in the future.
Justin Angelo Morey: Thank you very much. Merry Christmas.
What does it feel like to stand next to an actual Mellotron?
Justin Angelo Morey: Oh my God, I mean, I’ve got to be honest with you… are you familiar with the Mellotron? Well, obviously, right? They’re pretty real. I mean, I’d never seen one up close and personal until that moment and my God, I kid you not, once we saw one up close… and it’s funny because the owner of the Mellotron who is half owner of the studio, owns a music store in Hoboken… I remember when this Mellotron was first in his music store in 1999 or 2000. It actually used to belong to the Moody Blues, believe it or not. Is that insane? I remember hearing and that and being like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty nuts.’ I don’t think it was the one with which they did ‘Nights in White Satin.’ It was probably their touring one from later on. But I remember when he had it in there and it was just like, ‘What is that?’ And he was like, ‘It’s a Mellotron.’ ‘THAT’S the Mellotron?’ He was like, ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.’ You know, we never plugged it in or anything there but years went by and I went up, remembering that he had this at the studio, and that was probably one of the main reasons why we went to that studio, because of the Mellotron and the Hammond B-3 and the Leslie. Originally we were going to record with Steve Albini.
Steve Albini doesn’t have a Mellotron?
Justin Angelo Morey: I felt like we’d probably have to rent one and obviously, us not having a pot to piss in, money was certainly a really huge factor. When we realized that this studio had a lot more stuff and it was closer and we’d save money, we decided just to use as much as we possibly could. When we got there and saw the Mellotron… it’s insane because all those things you hear in all those amazing songs with the Mellotron as the main instrument, those are the same tapes for all those keyboards. It’s the same company that produced those so you could do ‘Strawberry Fields’ and it sounds just like ‘Strawberry Fields.’ You could do the Zombies. I think the first thing I played was a Zombies song, ‘Hung Up On a Dream’ or something maybe. Some Zombies song. And I was just blown the hell away that I was getting these sounds and I don’t really even know how to play keyboards but just feeling it, I wanted to not leave it. We were actually considering fucking guitar, bass and organ and just doing everything with just Mellotron, drums and vocals at one point. We were pretty blown away by it. I’ll be honest, I remember reading stories about John Paul Jones talking about how with the Mellotron, you never knew whether or not it was going to work the night they played because if it had worked the night before, it was great, but you know it was so unpredictable, very, very finicky. But when you play it, each key has seven seconds sustain and then it literally has to rewind like a cassette tape so you have to be very on with your executing certain parts and knowing when to shift and hold down and go back. And if you press down too hard the tape doesn’t move and if you press down too light, the tape doesn’t respond. It’s really, really temperamental like a mean old man in kind of a way.
‘You dare disturb the Mellotron?’
Justin Angelo Morey: ‘I’ve been sitting here, no one’s used me. Why now? I don’t want to work.’ But it’s really beautiful. I wish I had money to buy one. If I could, I would definitely buy one.
Or you could buy a house.
Justin Angelo Morey: Funny thing is, back in ’99, I remember seeing an ad in Vintage Guitar magazine and some guy was selling a Mellotron for two grand and he had another one, with road case, and he wanted $2,500 and I remember being like, ‘Holy shit!’
That sounds like a scam to lure musicians over and take their kidneys.
Justin Angelo Morey: I obviously didn’t have that amount of money then. Looking back, that was a complete steal and I regret not buying that. Not going around begging from people to see if I could come up with the money or selling whatever instruments I had at the time to just buy it. But in a way really, they’re not light. They weigh a ton.
You might end up having to live underneath it.
Justin Angelo Morey: And I’d be asking for change every time people walked around.
You could play them ‘Happy Birthday’ on it if they gave you a dollar.
Justin Angelo Morey: Or trying to play ‘Strawberry Fields’ or the end part of any of those Zombies songs on Odessey and Oracle.
Having been in the studio working with a Mellotron and a Hammond, did you go back home and throw on a Zombies record and have a different kind of appreciation for it?
Justin Angelo Morey: Maybe a little bit here and there but I’ve always been so insanely obsessed with certain instruments or certain sounds. I don’t know when it happened. I think it happened in like ’93, I want to say. I don’t know what happened to me but I just started hearing things in songs and wanting to know what that was and where could I get it and how could I and what does this do and this was before the internet so it was like trying to hear from older guys in the music store area…
The community. I remember those things.
Justin Angelo Morey: Yeah, remember when those things used to exist? It’s a rarity. And then later on finding out more and more. So I was always on a quest back then to find these things and I was always well aware. Again, I don’t know what happened to me then. I was young and I was just so drawn to those particular things. And you’d hear stories from these guys. ‘Oh, I had one of those. I had TWO of them! That pedal is shit. Step on it once and the thing would break. This thing wouldn’t work.’ And I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, do you still have it? Can you find it? I’ll totally buy it. I just want to have it.’
Did they ever have it?
Justin Angelo Morey: I found some really good stuff back in the day. Not to sound like I’m 900 years old but I found some really good stuff and cheap. Like Big Muffs for $25 and Vox tone benders for like $100 or Echoplexes for $200. Really weird stuff. I remember seeing a Minimoog for $750 and thinking that was insane. Like, ‘Who the fuck would pay that much for that?’ And now they’re over two grand. Or like the Moog bass pedals.
This is like porn for equipment geeks right now.
Justin Angelo Morey: People would make fun of me and say ‘amp porn’ but I really, really enjoyed those things. Again, I don’t know what happened to me but I started getting really crazy trying to find all these things and at one time, you could get this stuff really cheap because people had tons of it pre-eBay. You’d see people selling stuff in a section in called ‘$99 or under’ and you’d see Vox Super Beatle amps. I remember my sister driving me to a place in some crazy part of Jersey, you know, no GPS, to get a Farfisa mini-compact for $99 and he had an old Kalamazoo bass amp and he definitely wanted me to leave with this amp too. Like he wouldn’t take no for an answer. And I was like, ‘No, man, I just want to spend a hundred bucks. I don’t have it.’ You know? ‘No, no, no, seriously, give me another hundred and I’ll give you the amp.’ ‘Listen, I don’t… I just want the Farfisa.’ And I remember getting the amp for fifty bucks and I can’t even find it now. I would love to have that amp.
What’s your prize possession? The one you won’t take to shows? The one that stays in the house with a ring of salt around it?
Justin Angelo Morey: I wish I could say that I still had that stuff. I traded and sold so many things to pay bills and stay alive more or less and I’m reduced basically to my 1967 Epiphone Rivoli bass which took me forever to find and I take it to every show because it’s the only bass I have. It’s so sad.
Justin Angelo Morey: Very scary. Yeah, we did two shows recently in the New York area for Thanksgiving and that night toward the end of the show—I never break strings—but a string broke and I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll get through this,’ and I look to my left and I noticed that Wylie’s playing tambourine and not guitar on the last part and I’m like mouthing ‘What the fuck?’ Like, ‘What happened? Are you okay?’ And he picks up his guitar and shoves the headstock in my face and the headstock snapped on his Les Paul. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know what happened. Yeah, it was pretty scary so he’s getting that repaired right now and we’re more or less freaked out about flying our gear anywhere.
What one piece of equipment most saved your life? Something that you had to part with, but it kept you off the street, kept you fed, kept the power on?
Justin Angelo Morey: Me and John used to be in a band quite a few years ago that actually got signed to a major label. When the band got signed we actually had an equipment advance and for me, I used to refer to it as Christmas in July. I pretty much went apeshit and I finally found this one bass that I had been wanting since I was probably sixteen years old. It was a 1966 Fender Jazz Bass. It was a bound neck with dots, not the blocks, and it had these oval egg-shaped tuners and the original case and I loved this bass so much. I think I paid an absurd amount of money for it. I think I paid like 2700 for it, which is nothing now. I may have sold it for like $3,500 or $3,700 and that floated me for maybe four months, which in retrospect is nothing because when you think about it, I could have found other ways to do it and I really regret selling that bass. I regret not moving out and maybe living somewhere else or sleeping on someone’s couch for a while because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford that thing again. Oh no, you know what? The biggest disappointment was I had a 1963 Fender Jazz Master with the original case. I got this probably in ’99 for an insanely cheap deal. I think I paid maybe $1,100, $1,250 for it maybe? And I sold it for three grand and again I don’t know why I even sold that guitar. I’m trying to figure out, did I need to pay for this or that? But I’m still in debt so it couldn’t have gone to sustain anything. That one I literally have nightmares about quite often.
What are the nightmares like?
Justin Angelo Morey: Like playing it and it feels like modern day and then waking up and realizing, no, it’s not in the corner, it’s not on the couch, it’s not there. And that’s a really sad moment in my day.
Do you seriously sit bolt upright in bed?
Justin Angelo Morey: Yeah—fetal position, but yeah. Definitely. Or looking at photos of them. Or you see them. We were in Portland over the summer and we were at some music store and I remember they had two Jazzmasters. They had one that was maybe a ’64? Same thing. And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, can I please see that? Oh my God, I miss this.’ He was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I was like, ‘I used to have a ’63.’ It was as if I’d lost a child, like ‘Oh my God, you look-a just like-a my son!’ I had a moment. I definitely had a moment and I was asked to leave because I wouldn’t give it back. They were like, ‘If you want to buy it, it’s five grand.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t have five grand but do you want the Softly Towards the Light LP on vinyl? It might be worth money one day!’
THE BLACK HOLLIES WITH THE SHYS AND CASTLEDOOR ON FRI., DEC. 4, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $10 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. THE BLACK HOLLIES SOFTLY TOWARDS THE LIGHT IS OUT NOW ON ERNEST JENNING. VISIT THE BLACK HOLLIES AT THEBLACKHOLLIES.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/THEBLACKHOLLIES.