James Mastro talks about his solo debut, “Dawn of a New Error”

Having spent over four decades in his own bands and as a touring musician, James Mastro has released his debut solo album, Dawn of a New Error. The Hoboken-based rock/Americana singer-songwriter-guitarist has always been writing songs of his own, and several factors led him to collaborate with friend and producer Tony Shanahan in recording them now. 

Mastro got his start as a teenager playing with The Richard Lloyd Group. He joined the Bongos in 1980 and formed Health & Happiness Show in the early ‘90s. In 2001, he began working with the legendary Ian Hunter, appearing on his past seven albums and as a member of the Mott the Hoople for their 2018-2019 reunion tour. Mastro has performed with many artists, including Patti Smith, John Cale, The Jayhawks, Alejandro Escovedo, Garland Jeffreys, and Jesse Malin. He collaborated with Robert Plant as his musical director for a benefit concert for Love’s Arthur Lee. And he can also often be found making guest appearances with area shows.

Meeting at Guitar Bar, the Hoboken music store he opened in 1996, Mastro talked about his career and the making of Dawn of a New Error.

You’ve always been busy with various bands and collaborations. What made you decide to do a solo album at this point?

James Mastro: It’s a good question. I guess Covid was part of the impetus. Even though I’ve been working with other people, I’m always writing. My friend Tony Shanahan, who produced the record, had opened a studio and when he first opened he was like, ‘I need to check out the room. Why don’t you come in?’ So I was the guinea pig and just started writing for that, and we just kept going. If he had a day open up, he’s like, ‘Come in, what have you got?’

And then I’ve been with Ian Hunter for 20-something years, and a combination of Covid and his really bad tinnitus stopped us from touring. So I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen after this’. So it just kind of forced me to finish it. If Ian was still going, then maybe I wouldn’t have. But it seemed like the right time; kept me busy, kept me out of jail.

In terms of the material, does it span the same time period? Or are they songs you had accumulated over the years?

James Mastro: A lot of these were accumulated over the years, or almost done, and probably a lot of ‘em saw their completion during Covid. I wasn’t distracted by learning 50 songs by other people. But there was no pressure in making this record, which I think was kind of nice. Again, it was just, that if a day opened up in the studio we’d go in. Maybe I wouldn’t go in for another three, or four months and that just let me think about it, or not think about it, which maybe is better. So there was an immediacy when we recorded. None of the other musicians had heard the songs before stepping in, so everyone really contributed, and it just kept it fresh. It was kind of anything goes. It was a different way for me to make a record.

So given that process, was there a point where you feel you established a direction for it or maybe some kind of concept?

James Mastro: The first song we did was “My god,” which kind of deals with right or wrong. And I think that kind of set the tone, which is religions don’t matter or shouldn’t matter, politics shouldn’t matter. It’s basically what is right and what is wrong. Am I hurting someone? Am I helping someone? And so I think that song kind of set the tone for the rest of the record, and I wanted to live up to that song.

Does the album represent all the tracks you were working on? Was there other material that you may have started that didn’t make it onto the final album?

James Mastro: There were a few, and they may make their way onto the next one. But I’ve been writing a lot more since finishing this one, with the second record in mind. So yeah, the next record may be about moving to outer space. Who knows? It all depends on what that first song or two is. That sets the tone for it, but yeah, usually there is a song that’s going to be the touchstone, I think, for a record.

Do you feel you were influenced or inspired by any of the other projects you were doing?

James Mastro: Well, always. I mean, I’ve been lucky to work with my heroes, a lot of my heroes… They influenced me even before I met them or worked with them. So it’s impossible for that not to rub off, hopefully in a good way. But it’s about having your antenna up, working with Ian or John Cale. It’s what you take out of every experience that’s going to influence you. But [with] those people, I try to live up to their standards. In the back of your head, especially with Ian because he’s such a good friend, it’s like, “Would he like this?” – because he’s such a craftsman and works very hard at it. So you try and keep those goals, but at the end of the day, you just have to be happy with what you’re doing yourself. So I think they’ve taught me some good lessons that hopefully I’m putting into good work.

Could you talk about the other collaborators on this album?

James Mastro: Well, there weren’t that many. It was Tony Shanahan who I mentioned, who’s been with Patti Smith forever. And before, we were in a band together – Health & Happiness Show. He got the offer to play with Patti while we were together. It’s like, you can’t say no, but we’ve been friends for 30 years. Musically we’re on the same page, but he’s always showing me stuff that I’d never heard and vice versa. So he was the biggest collaborator on this. I’m used to being in the producer’s chair, and it’s a hard thing to let go. You’re your own boss, you’re used to it. But with Tony, it was like, yeah, I trust him and he’s not going to argue with me if I feel really strongly about something.

And so when we recorded, it was basically me, him and whichever drummer was around at the time. And the drummers were all exceptional, four different drummers on the record, and they all lent something special and brought something. I want to be around people who I think are better than me because that’s going to make me work harder. And every one of these drummers, and Tony brings something that I wouldn’t have thought of.

And there’s one track that was different, and that was one of the earlier ones, and that was also an impetus for making this record. Nick Hill, he was a DJ at WFMU for years, and Kate Jacobs, who owns Little City Books, they had this radio show, or they call it the Radio Free Song Club. They would get artists in to record a live song for a radio show. So they asked me to come in and do ‘Someday Someone Will Turn Your Head Around,’ I’d been working on it. They were going to have a bunch of people there. I was like, this kind of could become kind of like a gospel song. So same thing; I went in, showed it to the band that day. There were 10 people in the room, and that track is live except for some of the vocals.

I have to mention Meghan Riley, the female vocalist who’s pretty prominent on three of the songs, who I work with. I love her music, and she’s just one of my favorite singers. And I think on ‘Three Words,’ that song especially, that song wouldn’t have been on the record if she didn’t sing on it. I couldn’t have done what she did, and it just got the point across.

How did you initially get involved with Ian Hunter?

James Mastro: I totally bluffed my way into it. I was a huge Mott The Hoople fan as a kid. They’re the band that made me want to play guitar, playing air guitar until I finally realized it’s ridiculous, I should learn. So years later, he was doing a show in New York. He hadn’t played in years, and in the year 2000 he was going to play Bowery Ballroom. Some of my friends were in the band in New York. My friend Andy was the other guitarist. So when I found out, I called him right away. I was like, ‘Andy, if you need another guitar player, please let me know. I’d love to do this.’ So Andy was like, ‘great, let me call Ian.’ And he called me back the next day. He’s like, ‘yeah, Ian doesn’t really want to have a big band. He only wants to have one guitar player.’

Damn. I thought about it the next day and I called him up. I was like, ‘look, if you’re doing, ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother,’ the song that has mandolin on it, you’re going to need a mandolin player.’ He’s like, ‘you’re right. Let me call Ian.’ So he called Ian. The next day he called me back. He’s like, ‘you’re on, come tomorrow to rehearsal. Bring the mandolin.’ The only problem was I didn’t own a mandolin. I didn’t play mandolin, so I borrowed one quickly. I stayed up all night and learned the song and went the next day to the rehearsal, and he was like, ‘oh, that sounds good.’ And then he was like, ‘here, try mandolin on this song.’ I ended up playing on two songs on that. So we’re doing the show and at the end of the night ‘All The Young Dudes’ was the encore, and I wasn’t playing on it, and I noticed no one was playing acoustic guitar, and it’s the last song of the night.

I’m like, ‘dammit, I want to play this song with the Ian Hunter.’ So I just grabbed the guitar, walked on stage, and the rest of the band laughed and they didn’t care. And so I played, and Ian didn’t even know I was up there. Then at the end of the night, he starts introducing the band and he turns around and he sees me there, and he’s just like, ‘what is he doing here?’ He kind of laughed, and then that night later he is like, ‘we should have James in the band. He plays guitar, plays mandolin.’

When I had grabbed the guitar to go up there, what’s he going to do? Fire me? I’m not even hired. So it was kind of a risk, but it was a dream and I needed to do it. And so it worked out.

Can you just talk about how it evolved from then, in terms of your work with him?

James Mastro: Well, he then started recording a record. He hadn’t made a record in a while, and that show got him inspired. So when they were recording, they called me in to do some mandolin, which now I had a couple of months under my belt. So I ended up playing on three songs on that record. And from there, he needed to put a band together for a tour. So he asked me to do that, and the first things we did were actually just me and him acoustic, which was great. It was like a promo tour for the record that was coming out. And by me saying it was great, it was because I had someone who had really made me become a musician to myself. We were flying across the country doing these radio shows and press and some TV, and I had him totally to myself. So the stories I got, the questions I could ask were just priceless. And yeah, he’s one of my best friends, so he’s a pretty amazing person.

You started in bands and went on to collaborate with so many different artists. Did you at some point consciously decide that you wanted to work with lots of people as opposed to focusing on one project?

James Mastro: I was always in a band. I loved being in a band. If you develop your own language, the four, five of you, you go through things that no one else has or that you share. But I left The Bongos because I started writing more, and Richard Barone was the main songwriter, and I couldn’t say, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ It was time, and it was a tough choice because that was truly a band of brothers. I love those guys still and we play still.

So leaving The Bongos, people started asking me… like, oh, Chris Stamey asked me to do a tour with him. And so it helped me. They weren’t looking for a band member, so I could focus on what I was doing or wanted to do, and yet still play with friends. And so the pressure marriage commitment wasn’t there, and more people asked me to do stuff or to produce stuff. And so it just kind of happened. For whatever reason, people kept asking me.

You mentioned Hoboken in the eighties. What was the musical community like back then?

James Mastro: It was small. It started off very small. I’ve said this before, if you were walking around Hoboken in the early eighties and you saw someone wearing a leather jacket, you knew you’d see them at Maxwell’s that night. They were either musicians or artists, and it was a very affordable town for a musician. My rent, when I first moved here, was $80 a month. A slice of pizza from Benny Tudino’s was 25 cents. So you didn’t have to work a lot to pay that, and that let you focus on being a musician or an artist. And huge credit goes to Steve Fallon, the owner of Maxwell’s, for nurturing all these musicians and bands, and being very welcome to letting bands from other towns come in and play. REM, one of their first shows was up here, and I lived upstairs from Maxwell’s too, so it was very convenient. So at 1:00 AM you could go down, see a band, or even better, go down at a five o’clock soundcheck to see the Pogues, something like that. And it was a secret, just the same way Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s were at the outset. It was like your private little world that, to be a part of this little gang, this club was the impetus. Making it big, was playing Maxwell’s, not Madison Square Garden.

With The Bongos, you’ve reformed over the years, but it seems like you’ve been a bit more active recently.

James Mastro: If the right reason comes up, or it depends on where we all are. Frank Giannini, the drummer now lives in North Carolina, so that makes it a little tougher. But yeah, we’ve had some nice offers come in to play, and we did a Christmas single last year, and it keeps it fresh and fun that way. Richard and I, who knows, we may start writing some songs together, so we always threaten to do it, but it’s hard getting us in the same room and same schedule.

It seems like the band initially emerged at an interesting time, with music videos playing a big role. What was it like being in a band at that time?

James Mastro: There was no internet, so video was really the way. Aside from college radio, no one was getting major airplay. So a video, which all the rock clubs were showing, was a way to get your name out. And The Bongos, I joined them like a year and a half after they formed, two years after they formed as a full-time member. But they realized pretty early on that videos were a good tool. And so because of that, we were able to tour at early stages and cross country and do well because people had seen the videos. And then there was a channel, RockAmerica, that was based in New York, and they would service all the clubs with tons of videos. So you’d go to California and people knew who you were. But it was also that same feeling of you had to go out and look for something, or it was word of mouth, discover. And there’s something to that I think builds a loyalty with fans, if they feel like they’ve discovered you as opposed to a playlist that pops up. So I think our timing was fortunate.

James Mastro has 2 album release shows coming up:

Feb 21, 2024 – Bowery Electric – NYC
Feb 24, 2024 – Transparent Clinch Gallery – Asbury Park, NJ (4pm)

He will also be touring with ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO – as part of his band, and opening with his own set. Tour dates are here.

Dawn of a New Error will be out 2/21/24 on MPress Records; click here to get it.
For more info on James, visit jamesmastro.net.