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10,000 Maniacs

10,000 Maniacs had a name steeped in kitschy irony, a quality wholly absent from their gentle, empathetic music. Emerging from the post-punk underground of the early 1980s, 10,000 Maniacs operated on a parallel path to their compatriots R.E.M., sharing a similar fondness for '60s folk-rock and possessing a political consciousness that surfaced both in their music and their activism. There wasn't a trace of garage rock in 10,000 Maniacs -- guitarist Robert Buck favored softer, rounder tones, while lead singer Natalie Merchant sang with an open heart and eccentric enunciation. Merchant proved to be a compelling frontwoman for 10,000 Maniacs, helping the group break into the mainstream with their 1987 album In My Tribe. Over the next five years, the band became a staple on college radio while crossing over to the adult contemporary charts with the singles "Trouble Me" and "These Are Days," thereby laying the groundwork for the tasteful polish of adult alternative rock of the '90s. Merchant left the band just before MTV Unplugged and its accompanying single "Because the Night" gave the group their biggest hit but 10,000 Maniacs soldiered on without her, enlisting the folk duo of John & Mary as her replacement. Over the years, the group's lineup shifted on occasion, but core members Dennis Drew, Steve Gustafson, and Jerry Augustyniak remained through all the incarnations of the band, both on-stage and on record. Guitarist Robert Buck, keyboardist Dennis Drew, bassist Steven Gustafson, drummer Chet Cardinale, and vocalist Terri Newhouse formed Still Life in early 1981. Not long after their inception, vocalist Natalie Merchant started to sit in with the band, as did guitarist John Lombardo. By the time the group became 10,000 Maniacs, the band featured Merchant, Buck, Drew, Gustafson, Lombardo, and drummer Tim Edborg; the latter would be replaced by Jim Foti when the group cut their debut EP, Human Conflict Number 5. Following the release of their EP, 10,000 Maniacs relocated to Atlanta, Georgia in hopes of breaking into the city's music scene, a venture that proved unsuccessful. Once they moved back to Jamestown, they added drummer Jerry Augustyniak and recorded Secrets of the I Ching, a full-length album released on Mark Records in 1983. Secrets of the I Ching helped secure the interest of Elektra Records, which signed the band in 1984 and sent them to London to record their major-label debut with Joe Boyd, the Fairport Convention producer who would also work with R.E.M. on Fables of the Reconstruction during this same period. The resulting The Wishing Chair appeared in September 1985 and helped the group gain a foothold in college radio. Lombardo left the group shortly after its release -- he'd form John & Mary with Mary Ramsey in 1989 -- and 10,000 Maniacs headed to Los Angeles to record with British Invasion survivor Peter Asher on their next album, In My Tribe. Asher helped bring out the sweeter, tuneful side of 10,000 Maniacs, which was evident on the singles "Like the Weather" and "What's the Matter Here?" which kept the group on radio through 1988. 10,000 Maniacs reunited with Peter Asher for Blind Man's Zoo, the 1989 album that featured "Trouble Me," a gentle, reassuring song that cracked the Top Ten on both the Billboard Modern Rock and Adult Contemporary charts, an unusual combination that signaled how the band found a new niche: adult alternative rock. Instead of capitalizing on their burgeoning fame, 10,000 Maniacs stayed off the road in 1991, a decision spurred by Merchant contracting spinal meningitis during their '90s tour; the vocalist spent her hiatus helping the homeless in Harlem. Once they regrouped, they recorded Our Time in Eden with producer Paul Fox, a record that brightened and expanded their palette. Released in September 1992, Our Time in Eden gave the group a number one Modern Rock hit in "These Are Days," while its successor "Candy Everybody Wants," reached five. During its supporting tour, the band recorded an installment of MTV Unplugged in April 1993 but before it could be released as an album in October, Merchant announced she was leaving the band, stating she "didn't want art by committee anymore." Elektra retained Merchant as a recording artist but dropped 10,000 Maniacs. 10,000 Maniacs brought in John & Mary as Merchant's replacement, signing with Geffen Records for 1997's Love Among the Ruins, an album that gave them a Top 30 hit in the form of a cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This." The band moved to Bar/None for The Earth Pressed Flat, a record comprised of leftovers from Love Among the Ruins. Buck took a brief sojourn from the band in early 1999 to pursue a group called League of Blind Women, but he returned by the end of the year. Buck died of liver failure on December 19, 2000, prompting 10,000 Maniacs to take a hiatus. They reemerged for a charity concert in December 2001 with Buck's guitar tech Jeff Erickson serving as the his replacement but when Gustafson, Drew, and Augustyniak reconvened in 2002, they left Lombardo and Ramsey behind in favor of Erickson and Oskar Saville of Rubygrass. Over the next few years, this version of 10,000 Maniacs played the occasional festival, with Ramsey rejoining as a supporting musician in 2006. After Saville left the band in 2007, Ramsey was once again the lead vocalist. 10,000 Maniacs returned to recording with Triangles, an EP released in June 2011 ahead of a pair of hometown concerts celebrating their 30th anniversary that October. Music from the Motion Picture, their first album in 14 years, arrived in 2013. John Lombardo returned for Twice Told Tales, a 2015 album featuring covers of folk songs from the British Isles. The live Playing Favorites appeared in 2016, followed quickly by Live at the Belly Up in 2017. The band celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2022 with a tour where they were billed as 10,000 Maniacs featuring Mary Ramsey.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo


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