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Interview: Comateens

NYC Synth-Punk/New Wave Creators Reissue Their First Single on Left For Dead Records


A black and white photo of the Comateens

Being in a band is really nothing more than maintaining a relationship. It's complicated and messy; sometimes these personal connections end on positive notes and others...well, not so much. Time, however, softens perspectives and give us the ability to see our past experiences through a wiser - and wider - lens: maybe we could have done a few things differently back in the old days, after all. Don't call it regret, it's just growth.


So goes the story of NYC punk/new-wave band the Comateens which was founded in the late 70s by Ramona Jan and Nicholas “Nic North” Dembling. During those years, Jan worked as one of the NYC's only female audio engineers at Mediasound recording studios. The group recorded some great tunes and found some traction in Manhattan's local scene which had an appetite for upcoming synth-laced new wave and post-punk. However, after some personnel (and personal) changes, Ramona left and Nick continued the band with new members.


Ramona and Nick recently reconnected through the reissue label, Left for Dead Records which is known for their punk rock reissues from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Together, they remastered the audio from their first single using the original tapes that Nick still had in his possession. And so, their first work has been reissued digitally, but also on CD or 12" single on vinyl. The vinyl pressing I received is very quiet, well-centered and incredibly dynamic allowing a listener to really crank it up and become fully immersed in the authentic late 70s grit and grime that served as the backdrop for the Comateens' sound which is simultaneously a nostalgic look backward and a visionary peek ahead.


Jan and Dembling haven't communicated much over the last forty years. But, with this new release out in the world, they've rekindled their old friendship in the name of music and in an effort to share the tunes they created all of the those years ago with a wider, newer audience they have agreed to combine their memories and tell the story of the Comateens as they recall it today. Speaking with them seemed to be therapeutic for all of us. Ramona was particularly determined to press-forward with our interview date even though she was hospitalized! The show, as they say, must go on; and so, away we go.


Evan: We're here today to discuss the recent reissue and thank you for sending me a copy. We've got, it's a 12-inch single with "Elizabeth's Lover" and "Danger Zone" by Left for Dead Records. Why was 2023 the right time to revisit these tracks?


Ramona: I think it's just karma.


Evan: Karma?


Ramona: Karma and destiny. Nick and I had been friends for-


Nick: The record company contacted Ramona and said, hey, because she'd been working with this company for a while, don't you have a couple of, I'd like to release these tracks from 1979? She called me and she said, let's do this together, and we did. Previously, we released it by ourselves as a self-release thing, a single. We printed 1,000 copies and we did it in '79 and it hasn't been heard of since.


Evan: Why don't you just fill in for the audience a little bit, the interesting story about how you guys met. I think that, it seems like, Nicholas, you sort of represent, the Comateens, the several albums that you've put out. Ramona, you sort of represent the beginning, the impetus of the project to begin with. I guess something happened there where you guys sort of separated. It's interesting that you came back together to do this. What was the story there?


Ramona: I founded the band. I asked Nick if he wanted to play music with me. I also recruited Lynn, and we were together for a few years and did a lot of things, played in a lot of places and made this record. Then there was, I'll just say, a power shift because Lynn and Nick, they got involved as a couple, and it's very hard when you're in a group where there's a couple. We were young, we were young and really emotional, jangling nerves and just knee-jerk reactions to everything, and no thought at all.


I have to say Nick and I have really talked about it. He told me the other day that he wanted his brother in the band and he just thought, yes, just have Oliver in the band. There was no meeting or anything like that. One of the things that happened where there was no meeting is I got a call from Nick and he said that, "We," I don't even know who the we was, "have decided that you can no longer sing in the band until you have singing lessons, which they offered to pay for. We have to give them credit for that. The thing is, I was only in the band to sing my own songs and to learn how to sing. Nick didn't know that. Nick thought I was really going to be a recording engineer and that I didn't care about the band.


Nick: I thought it might've been a hobby for her. I thought, well, whatever. My brother was in an aimless state and I brought him into the band to give him some something to do. Ramona and I have learned so much about each other in the past three months. It's unbelievable.


Evan: Boy, men, right, Ramona? Us men, we're always clueless, right?


Ramona: Yes. I didn't even know that was going on, because like I said, I felt very separate all of a sudden and then someone tipped me off, that they were rehearsing with Oliver with the intention of replacing me. Now, I don't know if that was elaborated on or that's what the person's opinion was. The phone call came in. I tried at first to explain that I was just in the band to sing and I didn't think I would learn how to. I had taken singing lessons and gotten nowhere, so this was my last resort. I had to just sing live and figure it out. It was about 10 o'clock in the morning, that was early for me. I just said, "I quit." and I just hung up the phone and that was it. No call back, no, wait a minute. You know what I mean? Oliver just became me, and that was it. Then we didn't speak for 40 years.


Nick: Evan, it was like when David Byrne broke up the Talking Heads to go off and do his own thing. He said he just did it just like that, even though they'd had wild success. He says now, that he handled that very badly and he's trying to make amends a little bit with his former bandmates, which is why you see him appearing everywhere with them. Besides, they're also promoting the Stop Making Sense thing. He has said in several interviews that he didn't handle his departure from the band well with his bandmates. When you're 22, you just fire yourself off in different directions without giving it any thought whatsoever.


Evan: Absolutely. Bands are very much like their relationships. Oftentimes, they have some kind of romantic connections and when they don't, they're like brotherhoods or cousinhoods or whatever you might call it. Sometimes you have some family infighting and some whatever, you walk away from things and turn around.


Just to just clarify, over the last 40 years or so, you really haven't had much of a connection together. Who brought you together, the record label got in contact with each of you?


Ramona: Basically, the record label got in touch with me. I had some brief exchanges with Nick, but I don't think, Nick, I don't think this, but the record label was going to go ahead with just me doing the interviews. Maybe they thought there'd be some sensitivity or something. I insisted, I was like, "I want Nick on every single interview."


Nick: I'm very glad you did that.


Ramona: Yes, me too.


Evan: You see how I delved right into the sensitivity of it? I don't care. [laughter]


Nick: I did not realize how important the band was to Ramona at the time, because we started it as a like homebrew project in her apartment and I just thought we were fooling around. I wasn't that aware of her feelings about the group.


Ramona: It would be because Nick had played in other bands. I had never had a band. It was my dream. Here I was doing it. The fact that I was also a recording engineer, Nick didn't know what happened when I went through those doors of Studio A. He didn't really know. He was thinking, wow, she's making a career.


Nick: Exactly. She worked with Frank Sinatra. She worked with Brian Eno. You name it, she's worked with them. I thought, this is the thing. I was in awe of her, and this is the thing that she was really going for. This band has got to be 400th on the list to what she was doing. That was actually the opposite.


Evan: Now you know, Nicholas, now you know. An interesting thought I had when listening to this and a lot of the other tracks was, it's a very dance-oriented sound. This single is a little bit different. This is a little more straight rock and roll, but some of the other Comateens tracks, especially with the drum machine, as Dick Clark would say, it has a good beat and you can dance to it. Can you talk a little bit about that cross-section of dance and disco and punk and new wave? Explain to our audience how audiences reacted to this at the time with some of the early gigs with the drum machine?


Nick: The main thing about drum machines is that Ramona and I, Ramona had the original drum machine and it was her father's drum machine. He used to play organ to it. We thought, what a great thing. We don't have to have a drummer. We don't have to take drums in a taxi to a show, we can pack all of our equipment into a taxi cab, go to a show and then go home. It was the practicality of the drum machine that we were attracted to. We didn't have to deal with another person, it could just be us doing the music without any interference.


We finally did get a drummer who's on this record. He was great, but actually, drummers were very difficult to find a good one. I would say that drummers are the most jittery of all musicians. They will disappear at the slightest. If they find a better position, they're gone.


Ramona: They're like hairdressers. You get a good hairdresser, and then all of a sudden, you go back to the shop, and they move to Florida.


Evan: There's a lot of good drummer jokes out there, you know?


Nick: Drummers are the most venal of all musicians. Let me tell you, they're up for themselves completely. They know how valuable they are, and they will go wherever is a great gig. We went through like three drummers, and it was a pain in the neck.


Evan: You had those drummers before the drum machine entered the rehearsal phase, or where was it on the timeline?


Nick: The first thing was the drum machine. The drummers were much later.


Evan: I see, okay. Of course, this album was put together with the drummer. How did you make change from the drum machine to the drummer? How did you hook up with the fellow who's playing on this album?


Nick: To tell you the truth, I can't remember. This band, with this drummer was a tiny little slot.


Ramona: I wouldn't have remembered that.


Nick: I can't quite remember how we got this guy. Ramona, do you remember where Harry Verdeschi came from?


Ramona: Did we audition drummers?


Nick: We must have.


Ramona: He was not the best looking as far as the look of our band, but he definitely was the best player.


Nick: He was a very sweet person, and he was a cab driver by night.


Evan: Is he on the picture here?


Ramona: Yes.


Nick: He's the guy on the left.


Evan: This is him?


Ramona: Yes. You have to move it so we-


Evan: Sorry, the camera changed. Here he is with the jacket.


A black and white photo insert of the Comateens

Nick: He called himself Harry Verdeschi, like Harry Verdeschi. I have no idea what his real name is, and I never did. [laughs] He played on three tracks, and that's it, and he was gone.


Ramona: He was older than us, too, Nick, remember?


Nick: That's right, he was older than us.


Evan: That is funny.


Ramona: Why didn't he stay in our band? Could we not afford him? I think he wanted money. I do, I think he wanted money.


Evan: One of those crazy musicians who thinks they're going to get paid, right?


Nick: It's the song of the drummer. [laughter]


Ramona: Yes, they're going to love all that stuff. They want $200 or whatever.


Evan: They want a sandwich at least. They just want a sandwich. Ramona, maybe we can just talk about being a female at that time. Here you are, an engineer at Mediasound and you're sort of putting this band together, and this is obviously a male-dominated industry. Did you experience anything like that at the time, or were you just accepted into the crew as it went along?


Ramona: As far as fronting a band, I just realized lately that that was also considered, because I'm in a book called Hit Girls, and they came to me because I fronted a band at this time, and women weren't doing that. I was like, I grew up with three brothers. To me, even though I wasn't treated exactly the same as them, I was used to dealing with guys. To me, playing my music and fronting a band, I never even gave it a thought that I wasn't a man. Never even gave it a thought. Did you ever give a thought, Nick, that we were playing in a band together? Because think about it, how many bands with girls were you in before?


Nick: I didn't think about it even once. We were doing a band, and that was it. That was completely not a part of my thought process. The fact that there was millions of women musicians all over the world, why would that be weird?


Evan: Ramona, could you talk a little bit about writing these two songs? You wrote both of them, you've got a funny little note in the liner notes here where you say, you wrote "Danger Zone" as a warning to someone you were dating, and "Elizabeth's Lover" about a triangulated relationship, and that you claim creative license in both songs. It's very funny. What'd you do? You wrote these on guitar in your apartment, and you brought them to the rest of the guys and said, hey-- do you remember how you used to put these things together?


Ramona: I started writing songs when I was about 14 or 15. By the time I moved to New York with the intention of being a rock star, I had a set, which was about 10 or 12 songs. By the time I met Nick I was in the ready looking for musicians, I had no clue how to do that. I'd never played in a band, or gotten up on stage and sang or played the guitar. Nick was there and I had the songs already. In fact, most of the songs we did were my songs and then a few cover songs. "My Girl" by The Temptations, "Summer in the City", "TVC15" by David Bowie, but that was it.


How did I write songs? I was just a person with a lot of emotional angst and nowhere to channel it, and nobody to talk to. I just was writing lots and lots of songs, and just keeping them to myself to the day that I could find somebody who would play music for me. They came out of an emotional or an experience, of course. I don't remember who "Danger Zone" was about. Nick has this theory that it was about Tom from the Rousers, the lead guitarist, who was my boyfriend, but I'm not sure. Was I seeing him then? Yes, of course, I was, that could have been him.


Evan: Interesting. Both of these songs are very strong, really clever songwriting here. Nicholas, do you remember Ramona presenting you with these tracks and saying, "Oh, hey, how are we going to put this together?" I'd imagine you said, "Whoa, these are some pretty great tracks."


Nick: First of all, you'd be amazed at what the original "Danger Zone" sounded like. It sounded like a Tinker Toy song. It had a drum machine and it was like, "You're making it so damn hard." It was very, very different.


Ramona: Is that how I sang it to you?


Nick: What?


Ramona: Is that how I sang it to you?


Nick: Yes, it was very-- [chuckles]


Ramona: It was like a cold tune?


Nick: I didn't write many songs in those days and I was content to let her do it, and she did. Every couple of weeks, she would say, "Oh, I've got this and I've got that." What you hear on this record took quite a bit of grinding away and refining, and the tempo is all different. They're much different than they started out to be. I was just willing to go wherever it was going to go.


Ramona: See, I don't remember that at all because I know for me, my approach to playing guitar was a lot like Arto Lindsay. I felt like rock guitar had to fill out the whole space. I just needed to somehow make my guitar like a wall of sound. That was definitely what was needed, I felt, in "Danger Zone" in particular. I just developed a way of playing it that made it sound fuller, just a wall of sound.


Evan: I was talking to another band, a modern band just last week, and they also incorporate a lot of synthesizer into their sound. We were talking about the interplay between electric guitar and some of those distorted synths, some of those synth sounds, which can be sort of on a similar frequency. You guys both worked in recording studios and understand how that works in mixing, but did you think about that? Because it's a great sound that you guys got together on this.


Nick: This record is a very highly skilled engineer named Harvey J. Goldberg. He's now the head of the audio department of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He was a really good engineer. He made it sound great for these two tracks.


Ramona: Also, he was a guitar player. He was a guitar player, Harvey. Harvey just recently sold his gold Les Paul, probably a million dollars. Nick and I really didn't confer with each other. Nick made up his own part and I made up my own part. Then that's how we were.


Nick: We didn't challenge each other's parts at all.


Ramona: No, but I have to say that we used to these rehearsals. The very first one, your bass sounds like it's farting, [laughs] and I didn't challenge that. I was an audio engineer, but it sounded bo, bo, bo. It doesn't sound like farts, but you ended up somehow, I don't know. [laughs] We didn't get into each other's business.


Evan: I love this interview. Have you guys done a lot of interviews together? I feel like this is a very therapeutic.


Nick: This is about the fifth we've done together. We're enjoying the process a great deal.


Evan: It's interesting to be a spectator here and watch you two learn about each other, and hear this little tidbits about what was going on at the time, that maybe neither of you knew about.


Nick: My bass at the time was an old 1965 Hofner Beatle Bass the kind that McCartney used to play, and it costs me $85 as I remember. It was almost unplayable, it was barely holding itself together. [laughs]


Ramona: Do you still have it? Of course, you do.


Nick: I still have it. Sure, I have it.


Evan: It's worth more than $85 now.


Nick: It is, yes.


Ramona: Does it sound like it still farts? Does it still fart?


Nick: No. I put nice strings on it. It sounds good now.


Evan: It needed a good set up. You take it to somewhere, they give it a good set up. I'm sure they can figure it out. As we're saying, the record does sound great, what was done to the audio in looking at the reissue here? Was there anything done to it, or what did you use?


Nick: It was definitely remastered. It was remastered.


Evan: Did you have the tapes for it?


Nick: I had the master tapes.


Evan: Why don't you just share with us the process of sharing that with the record label, and what they did, anything come up? Did you guys weigh-in on the remasters, or?


Nick: Yes. That was a very intensive process of us sending audio files back and forth to each other endlessly to check out very tiny little details that nobody would be interested in, but we were. I had a master audio files, which I never met the mastering engineering. I just sent him these audio files to get it from there.


Evan: Had you digitized them first, and the mastering engineer used the digital files?


Nick: That's correct.


Evan: They sound really warm and tapey. Digital has come along the way.


Nick: They are originally 24-track tape. Sure.


Evan: They sound great. It's a really very crankable record. Was this the first time it was on 12-inch? Originally it was only on 7-inch. Is that correct?


The Comateens albu cover

Ramona: Yes.


Nick: That's right.


Evan: You get a little extra room, you get a little extra vinyl real estate there to really get those grooves, and maybe get a little bit more bass response and stuff like that?


Nick: Yes.


Evan: It sounds really good.


Nick: Thank you.


Ramona: I don't think it was 24-track, Nick. I think it was 16.


Nick: No, it's 24 track. I've got those tapes.


Ramona: You've got them?


Nick: I do.


Ramona: He is really bad. [laughs]


Nick: See, she didn't even know that. She didn't know that.


Ramona: I didn't even know anything then.


Evan: Revisiting the songs just recently, as we keep saying, after 40 years or so, maybe both of you just have some reflections listening to the track, and what are you getting out of it now in a different phase of your life? What are you hearing when you listen to this now? Maybe both of you have just independent reflections.


Nick: Energy. I feel a lot of youthful energy. I remember this recording session and I felt we were in a big beautiful studio, we had a top engineer, I thought, okay, this is it. It's going to be the best we can be. I remember really putting as much energy as I could, and I was really excited about making this record because I never recorded in such a situation before.


Ramona: My impression of the record having not heard it in all these years, I am amazed that how great it is and how contemporary it is. I didn't feel back then that it was-- I grew up with rock bands in the '70s, listening to rock bands like Journey and those people, and it didn't sound like that. I was trying to be like that as much as possible because I felt that's what band was supposed to sound, like a rock band. I wanted to be in a hard rock band. [chuckles] When I heard it recently, I was like, "You know what, it is a rock 'n roll record." I didn't see perceive it as that back then, but it is.


Evan: Really?


Ramona: The rock songs or rock records. The other one is pop.


Evan: I would agree with you using that word contemporary. I get it and I say this sometimes to bands who have reissued their material and you're listening to it in the 21st Century, but it's 40 years old and you say, boy, a modern rock band would saw off their left arm to make something that sounds like this. I think when you listen to this, you could definitely see some modern pop singer or just a rock 'n roll group saying, oh yes, this is what we wish we could get, this sound to be in the studio?


Nick: Yes, but Evan, you see this record is four people playing instruments. There's nothing artificial about this record. It's a Fender bass, it's a Fender guitar. It's a tiny little chord synthesizer, real drums, and people singing.


Ramona: People singing, yes. The only thing I remember about the session is playing my guitar part. That went pretty quick, but then doing the background vocals, the high part, did we all sing on it, Nick? I know I did.


Nick: We did. I stretched my voice five octaves to do that part.


Ramona: We probably doubled it because that was the style back then.


Nick: It was very analogue compared to what was about to happen just two years afterwards.


Evan: Right. Are these the only two tracks that you guys recorded together? Nick's got all the tapes, but are there any other secret Comateens stuff?


Nick: Yes. There's plenty of earlier stuff in this that Ramona and I recorded together.


Evan: That wasn't at Mediasound, that was just demo stuff or what exactly is that?


Nick: We would get these little opportunities to record in jingle studios and things, places where they made radio ads, little 8-track studios, and we would do very simple little recordings, just the guitar, a bass and a rhythm box. There are several recordings, at least five, and that to me in my mind is what the Comateens were about, those very simple, almost toy-like recordings.


Evan: You were able to use those small studios because you didn't have to log a whole drum kit in there?


Nick: We didn't have to pay for it either. They were favors, they were friends.


Evan: Maybe there's a prequel album in the works, like a prequel Comateens prequel something.


Nick: I would love to do that. I would love to do that.


Ramona: Early Comateens. The original Comateens.


Evan: The original Comateens.


Nick: Some of those records were on the jukebox at Max's Kansas City.


Comateens handbill for Max's Kansas City

Evan: The ones you recorded in the jingle studios that you're talking about?


Nick: Yes, that's right. Because I was a mastering engineer at Mediasound. I was a disc cutter. On the off hours, I would take those tapes and I would cut seven-inch lacquers of these tapes. We'd take them to the clubs and give them, and they would put them on the jukeboxes.


Evan: This is the message to young people. If you want to get a good recording and get your stuff on vinyl, work in a recording studio and cut your own records.


Nick: No question. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed for almost everybody.


Evan: [chuckles] That's true. Times are much different now, for sure.


Ramona: Back then, the studio was $250 an hour, and that doesn't necessarily include tape or instruments or anything, or an engineer. Nick, I didn't even know that you were cutting discs and putting them in the jukebox. Could you even tell me?


Nick: We did that together, Ramona.


Ramona: We did?


Nick: We went to Peter Crowley. We gave him these discs and he put them on the jukebox. Come on.


Nick: I don't remember that part. Oh, my God. [laughs]


Evan: If I had to do this interview over again, I wouldn't have written any questions. I would have just had the two of you talk to each other.


Nick: I'm sorry, Evan. Do you feel like we're steamrolling you?


Evan: No, I love it. I love it. I think it's perfect. I'm done. I asked everything I wanted to ask. Again, I think it's really fun to listen to the two of you reminisce and to sort of check each other's facts. I think that's what's important for the audience also to recognize and think about that history of the two of you as bandmates and friends, and how you've come full circle after all these years and that we're lucky enough to have these tracks to hear and enjoy, and hear what they sound like and to hear your memories.


Nick: Evan, that's a terrific summing up of what's been going on with us. I appreciate what you just said.


Evan: Good. I appreciate it, and it's a really fun story. I thank you both for your time.

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