Five questions: Mighty Joe Castro

Meet the group that taking rock ‘n roll out of the museum and breathing in new life

Mighty Joe
Philadelphia-based Mighty Joe Castro & The Gravamen will release their debut LP, “Come On Angels!” on July 31. | Image: David Norbut

Based out of Philadelphia, Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen is the latest musical project from accomplished collage artist and musician Joe Castro (ex-The Situation, The Lift Up, Nero /OPF).

Heavily influenced by the sound of rockabilly as well as ‘50s rock-n-roll and doo-wop, the band takes that vintage rock and roll sound but updates it with a modern lyrical approach and a healthy dose of post-modern guitar effects. Consider it a house that resides at the crossroads where Sun Records and Creation Records meet.

The Gravamen were formed after doghouse bassist H00V3r reached out to Castro about forming a new band. H00V3r enlisted Dallas, his bandmate in Philadelphia punk rock stalwarts Thorazine, to play drums and later found hot-shot lead guitarist Michael Stingle floating around Mount Airy. The full band held its first practice together in January 2018 and shortly after recorded their debut EP, “Wake Up, You’re Rockin’!” that May with Grammy-nominated producer Jim Salamone at Cambridge Sound Studios in South Philadelphia. The four-song EP was released in July 2018, followed by a limited edition vinyl 7-inch release in October.

Now, Mighty Joe Castro & The Gravamen will release their debut LP, “Come On Angels!” on July 31. The album was produced by Brian McTear (Sharon Van Etten, Dr. Dog, War on Drugs, Dead Milkmen) at Miner Street Recordings in the band’s hometown of Philadelphia.

“We define ourselves as a rockabilly band because the term rock and roll these days has become so broad that it’s completely meaningless,” Castro said. “But I consider us to be a rock-n-roll band in the truest sense of the word, in the tradition of the pioneers of the genre like Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley and Johnny Burnette. My Dad grew up in Brooklyn in the ‘50s, and would tell me stories about going to the Alan Freed shows at the Paramount and seeing Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. As a kid, those guys were legends to me. Couple that with being taken to the drive-in to see films like ‘American Hot Wax,’ ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘Grease’ – that beat was in my ears from a very early age. It’s in my blood. I’ve always loved it.

“Our goal is to play original rock-n-roll, in the style of the pioneers, but update it lyrically and sonically,” Castro added. “What if Buddy Holly had access to a stack of effects pedals and some Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds records?”

PW recently caught up to Castro to talk about the new LP and music.

Talk a little about the new LP, “Come On Angels.” How did it come together and is it everything you hoped it would be? What will be the best way for people to get the album?

The album is better than I’d hoped it would be. I was confident with the songs – most had been a part of our live set and tested in front of an audience. But with the recording process, I really think we captured something magical. I’ve worked on roughly two dozen records, both as a musician and a producer, and these were by far the most effortless recording sessions I’ve ever been involved in. And I credit that to Brian McTear and Matt Poirer at Miner St. Brian kept us from getting in our own way. Everything was recorded live to tape – except vocals – with minimal overdubs or editing. No click track – just a live band in a room. Personality over perfection. Strip it down and be confident in what you are and let that shine through. And Matt added so much atmosphere to the songs – his obsession with analog reverbs and quirky tape delays was a blessing that brought so much color to the sound. The whole process was just fun.  Focused and creative, but not stressful.  

I’m really proud of it and I think it’s the best record I’ve ever been a part of.

The best way to hear it is on vinyl – preferably in a dark, candle-lit room laying on the floor with headphones on. Proper old school style. And you can purchase that vinyl directly from us on our website (thegravamen.com) but the album will also be available on all streaming platforms – Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, etc – so pick your poison. We even have CDs for those who want to keep it mid-90s. No cassettes though – sorry, I lived through that era so I’m not jumping on that bandwagon.

We define ourselves as a rockabilly band because the term rock and roll these days has become so broad that it’s completely meaningless,’ Joe Castro said. | Image courtesy: Fear the Skull Photography

You held your first practice together in January 2018. Did you know right away this was going to be a great lineup or did it take awhile for everything to fall into place?

I drove home from that first practice with a huge grin on my face. Previously, I’d had a few false starts where something always felt off. And I’ve been in enough bands to know that you can’t force chemistry. It’s either working or it’s not. But once we started playing together, everything fell instantly into place. “Lightning in a bottle,” as H00V3R, our bass player, always says.  

As players, those guys are all really talented, but more importantly, they’re great listeners, which is a rarity. They play off each other rather than talk over one another. There’s no ego here – we all serve the song. Dal and H00V3R spent years playing together in Thorazine, so as a rhythm section, they’re machine tight. And Mike is an incredibly gifted guitar player. I can’t wait for people to hear what he plays on this record.  

Your music blends the style of the pioneers of rock and roll with more modern effects. How did you come up with this recipe for success? Is it a sound that’s unique to Mighty Joe Castro & The Gravamen?

I don’t think anyone else sounds like us. It’s about much more than just adding modern guitar effects to an early rock-n-roll template. We’re trying to avoid as many of that genre’s cliches as we can. We don’t play 12 bar blues. We don’t write songs about sock-hops and hot-rods. 

But what if Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens had access to a bunch of guitar effects and a stack of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds records? Or The Jesus and Mary Chain? That’s the idea – go back to the root. Take what we’ve learned, everything great that’s come after and go apply it to that original sound. We don’t follow any rules. We just try to keep it honest.

Are you familiar with Neil Young’s LincVOLTcar? He took a 1959 Lincoln Continental – a giant beast of a vehicle – and stripped the engine down and converted it into a hybrid electric car with air conditioning and a modern hi-fi sound system. That’s basically what we’re trying to do. Keep the aesthetic beauty and style of the original, but update the guts so it’s relevant to modern life. Because as an art form, rock-n-roll is timeless. Everyone can relate to that beat. It just needs to be taken out of the museum and have some new life breathed into it.

It looks like things are starting to open up again following the pandemic – at least a little. What are your plans for the rest of the year and moving forward? Concert performances, new music?

No firm plans at the moment. With the pandemic, everything is still up in the air and I don’t know if we’ll play a show again until 2021. Obviously, we don’t want to create a situation where we put us or our audience at risk. And on the flip side of that, we don’t want to play a show where the vibe is going to be lackluster.

If the venue has to be kept at 50 percent capacity and everyone has to stay six feet apart, the energy is just not going to be there.  A live show should be a communal experience – everyone together, celebrating being alive in that moment and getting lost in the music. And in modern life, where every one’s face is planted firmly into their phones 90 percent of their waking day, that escape is more important now than ever. So that’s what we want and, to settle for less, is difficult. I don’t want our personal impatience to lead us toward accepting an inferior experience.

So we’re gonna wait and see. Fingers crossed for the vaccine and moving things back to normal. In the meantime, we’re going to keep making videos and doing whatever we can to promote the new record.  And I’ll probably start writing songs for the next one. Onward and upward always.

What’s the best way for fans to keep up with what you’re doing?

Place your ear on the ground and when you hear that rumble, you know the train is coming…no, seriously, those looking for a more conventional method can follow us on Instagram (@thegravamen), Facebook (MightyJoeCastroandtheGravamen) and Spotify. And our website: thegravamen.com.

  • Eugene Zenyatta was raised on old-time Memphis 'rasslin' and strongly prefers the company of dogs to people. His greatest heartbreak came in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.