The Health & Happiness Show - Tonic (October 28, 1993)
The Health & Happiness Show - Instant Living (July 18, 1995)
The Health & Happiness Show started with two old friends sitting around a kitchen table, playing Hank Williams songs and sharing a few beers. Jim Mastro had been pursuing a music career since his teenage days performing with Richard Lloyd's post-Television band. He toured the world with the Bongos and then burnt out trying to get his chamber-pop group Strange Cave signed in the major label rat race of the post-Nirvana Nineties. Vinny DeNunzio had been a founding member of the Feelies and had his share of near-miss bands as well. But playing music together in their kitchen was fun. "We started getting together with other friends around their kitchen tables, and I realized that if I pushed all the tables together, we had the makings of a band - a band that wanted to play just to play - not to get a record deal. We booked a show, had a good time, and booked another."
Vinny became St. Vincent DeNunzio. Graham Maby joined on bass, then Tony Shanahan came aboard on bass and keyboards when Graham was away on tour. They added fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin. They took their name from a Hank Williams radio show and soon became favorites on the local club scene, then did what Vinny and Jim swore they didn't want - got a record deal with Bar/None. These days, Jim Mastro still performs with friends like Karyn Kuhl and Ian Hunter, but is best known as the proprietor of the Guitar Bar, offering musical instruments and lessons at three locations in Hoboken and Jersey City.
Q: Looking back, it's ironic that Strange Cave is the band that was supposed to make you rich and famous, but Health & Happiness Show seems to be the band people remember most fondly.
Jim Mastro: Strange Cave - my band after The Bongos - had every major label's ear for a while. We had endless meetings, showcases, demo deals, and were promised the moon. But the A&R people who loved us could never convince the money people to sign us. After awhile I realized I was playing music trying to cater to people who were more like used car salesmen then music lovers. It was a drag and killing my love for playing music. So as much as I loved everyone in the band, for my sanity's sake I had to end it. After a short while I invited my old drummer friend Vinny DeNunzio over for some beer and donuts. The acoustic in the corner was picked up and we started singing old Hank Williams songs. And we had fun. This turned into a weekly get-together, and then Graham Maby started stopping in, and other friends, too. After some time, I realized I was looking at a band in my living room, so I booked a gig without telling them, and then invited them to the show. Luckily, they all showed up, we played, had more fun, and decided to continue.
Q: Is it true you had a near death experience on the road that influenced your second Bar/None album Instant Living?
Jim: We were on tour and heading to Nashville for some shows. A car cut us off, and in trying to avoid hitting it, I swerved and our van - full of gear and 5 people - rolled over twice. The vehicle was totaled, but amazingly no one was seriously hurt. Surviving something like that definitely reinforces your joy to be alive. Lyrically, I think I was more introspective and philosophical on that record; musically, it's a much more electric and faster-paced album then Tonic was. Hurtling at 70mph with the sound of crushing metal in your ears will do that to you.
Q: Are there any lessons you learned in your career as a working musician that's helped you in your successful career as a local businessman?
Jim: Learned and still learning. Everyone's different, and everyone has a story. If you're not a good listener. you're not going to be a good musician. And I think the same applies for the business owner, the priest, the cop, the checkout clerk. There's a story in every word. You just have to be open 24 hours a day to hear it.