Interview: TMA – On Reissues and Band Legacy, The Tell All That Isn’t TMI

Punk rock’s history is a graveyard. A sprawling cemetery of bad and useless ideas. Most of it should remain sunk in the dirt of time, but there are a few gems worth unearthing. One such rough-looking diamond whose catalog has thankfully been excavated and restored is New Jersey’s TMA. Widely hailed as a pioneering hardcore band in the early ’80s, their sound embodied the snotty sarcasm and anti-macho moxie of punk’s beginnings while embracing the loose, rollicking lash that acted as a counterpoint to the growing metal crossover of punk scenes in surrounding states. Their sound even seemed to presage a template for more politically forward, outspoken, and more malicious sounding bands to come, including Reagan Youth.

You can (and I will) say a lot of nice and true things about New Jersey’s TMA but their work fell under the radar of many, even during their prime, for one simple reason. They never cared to be famous. For all of punk’s rebellion against rock star cliches and posturing in the late ’70s and ’80s, it’s the bands that usually played to the tune of industry hype (Ramones, The Clash, Sex Pistols) who are the best remembered. Many other bands took the Faustian deal that was offered to them by labels and promoters ended up suffering for it, but the ones we remember usually had some money backing them at one point or another (how readily anyone will admit this is a debate in itself though). The bands who were really just in it for the music and creative outlet that the punk scene of that era allotted are usually not greatly admired in posterity even if they embodied the professed ethics of those scenes in their most concentrated form.

TMA formed out of the connections of highschool friends and acquaintances and a mutual love of punk. The band’s guitarists Mike “Wattage” Demko and Tom Emanuele came together in the early ’80s declaring, “never mind the bullshit, here’s our music,” a mantra that they continued personify through the life of the band. Eventually, they recruited a drummer Al Rosenblum (the “A” in the eponymous “TMA”), and a singer David Oldfield, and released two LPs ( What’s for Dinner? and Beach Party 2000), as well as a smattering of smaller releases before pulling the plug on the operation in the waning days of the Reagan era. During TMA’s run, they would share the stage with many legends of their era but rarely played outside of their home town of Edison by reason of sheer intent. As good as TMA were they didn’t see their music as anything more than a worthwhile diversion. A way of getting out from under the boredom of their circumstances.

One of the reasons why archival projects are can be of some benefit to music lovers is they it can help give them perceptive on the sounds that inform our daily lives. Even when a band is badly remembered, their shadow and echo can be felt in the sounds and opinions of artists with who they shared a scene and continue to have a platform and garner public attention today. You may not hear TMA name-dropped by many outside of Northern New Jersey (with the exception of Jello Biafra, who reportedly really liked their What’s for Dinner? LP upon release), but it’s hard not to hear their satirical passes at Nancy Reagan (“Nancy” aka “(I’m In Love With) Nancy Reagan”), the hard on your luck scrabble spoken to on songs like “penniless,” or their rebuke of Nazi scenesters (“Surf Nazi”) and not think of the pop-cultural and political climate of the present day. In many ways, we still live in a world similar to the one that TMA came up in. Are there hardwon lessons to be learned from listening to hair-brained ditties like “Brain of My Own” or “I Am”? Maybe, maybe not. Is it a good time and window into an era that mirrors our own in strange ways? A most assured, hell yes!

New independent label Left for Dead has just reissued TMA’s back-catalog on vinyl and New Noise reached out to its owner Jim Reynolds as well as TMA for an interview to get some context on the reissues. Unfortunately, guitarist Mike Demko passed before we had a chance to speak with him, but we were able to touch base with Tom Emanuele via email. Below is a lightly edited version of our email exchange with Tom of TMA and Jim for Left for Dead. Please enjoy!

Tom Emanuele of TMA

How did you, Mike and Al all meet?
My family moved to Edison N.J when I was 15. I met Mike in high school and we became good friends. We both liked punk and we started a band with a drummer from school named Tony. I did vocals, Mike played guitar and Tony was on drums. We only played Ramones covers in Tony’s basement. That lasted about a year. Mike knew Al who was playing in a metal high school basement band. I picked up the bass and the three of us got together practicing in my garage. The band name came about in an unsober moment.  Mike and I were thinking about names and decided instead of going with some kind of evil cool name, we would do a 180 and go folksy like Peter, Paul and Mary. We thought a punk band named Tom, Mike & Al was hilarious, again, an unsober moment. At that time a lot of bands used initials so it became T.M.A. 

At what point did Dave get involved with the band?
Dave lived in the same neighborhood I moved from. I’ve been friends with Dave since grammar school. In the teen years, mid to late 70’s he was my new music source. He turned me on to Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, Dead Boys, ACDC, X  to name a few. In 78 he had tickets to the Ramones, Runaways and Suicide at the Palladium in NY. It was my first punk show. I invited Dave to come to a practice and he wanted in. I didn’t like doing vocals so I was happy to have him and he was a good front man.

Did you consider changing the band’s name once Dave got involved?
No, not really, we obviously didn’t put a lot of stock into a name and since we had the initials, if people asked we would make up names like Too Many Assholes.

What was playing shows like in the ’80s?
We were young, healthy and irresponsible for most of the ’80s, so overall it was just fun. 

How much did the political climate of the day influence you and your bandmates and the types of material you were writing?
The political climate didn’t influence us, we really didn’t think about it too much. We didn’t like the bands who were angry and preachy and acted like they had the answers to all the world’s ills. The band that did it the best was the Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit, Jello got his point across in a nonbelligerent way

What was your least favorite part of the punk scene during that time?
I can’t really think of anything I really disliked about the punk scene that was different from any other music scene. If you weren’t known you played in the middle of the week to a crowd of a couple of friends.

Your band gets pegged as a hardcore band. Today ’80s hardcore means Cro-Mags and Madball but I understand that the term meant something a little different while you were coming up. Are you comfortable calling what you did hardcore, or is there some other way you’d describe it?
To me, hardcore was just a new name for punk rock, like hip hop instead of rap. The labeling didn’t matter to me. You can call shit rock, for all I care.

Because you are from NJ, I need to ask, what exit are you off of?
Exit 10

Even though you guys didn’t write many songs about New Jersey (at least none that I’m aware of) the fact that you’re from there seems to loom large over the band’s legacy. What can you tell us about New Jersey in the early ’80s? How was it different from what was going on in NYC, PA, or DC at that time?
Our home base was New Brunswick NJ, a college town. So I can’t speak for all of NJ. There was a diverse music crowd in New Brunswick. There were 3 or 4 bars to play in, the Court Tavern being the hub. I think there were 2 things that differentiated our scene:

  1.  The bands we played with most Detention and Send Help are of the same punk ilk. We liked to entertain people by making them smile or laugh with nonsense; a la Ramones, Angry Samoans, Gears…etc. 
  2. People in the punk bands hung out with people in psychobilly, ska, rock, metal and techno bands and vice-versa. We all supported each other. 

Are you sick of people asking you about the Misfits, yet? Do you have a stock answer prepared or do you get creative each time it comes up?
Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of the Misfits at the time. I saw them once in Trenton, NJ. I don’t know if it was a bad night for them but they didn’t sound too good, playing out of tune. Years later I did appreciate their music. We were more like Adrenalin OD. 

Was there any significance to the timing of reissuing your back catalog?
I really don’t know, Jim Reynolds of JimBoco and Left For Dead records were nice enough to put the records out in the ’80s and now in the 2020s. You need to interview him on that.

What can you tell us about the reissue and how it came together?
Again, you need to interview Jim, this all came out of the blue for me. I’m not sure if Dave Oldfield’s TMA Facebook page got the ball rolling or not. [Editor’s note: It did!]

Do you think you’ll want to tour for the reissue once it’s safe to do so again?   
No, Mike unfortunately has passed away this summer and even if he hadn’t, who wants to see old men playing a young man’s game? ….I don’t.

A lot of the songs in your catalog are incredibly strong and stack up solidity against other recordings of the era. I’m shocked that you’re not better known today. How much of this pseudo-anonymity is because you wanted it that way and how much was out of your control?
Playing music was a hobby for us, we weren’t going to quit our jobs to go on a tour, sleep in a van with no money. So, that left us playing gigs locally and not all that often in, NJ, NYC, Philadelphia. Our friend Dave Machos from the band the Nullset, said “you guys are like the Steely Dan of hardcore” because we recorded and didn’t play out all that often.

Was there anybody back in the day who you wished you would have been able to play with but never got the chance?
We played shows with the Circle Jerks, Anti Nowhere League, TSOL, Joneses and I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but enjoyed them all.I would have liked to play a show with Black Flag with Henry, they were definitely one of our influences.

Do you feel connected to the punk scene of today at all? What’s your impression of how things have progressed since TMA called it quits?
At this stage in life, I don’t feel connected to any music scene. But, since TMA ended the punk/hardcore matured and became more mainstream, in a good way, meaning that there was a larger accepting audience of bands like Nirvana and Green Day that just wrote good, loud, and catchy tunes.

What’s your assessment of the political situation at the moment?
It looks a lot like the 70’s to me, with protests and riots and I think it’s unproductive. There are a lot of groups that seem to have an ax to grind, whether they do or not depends on your perspective. I consider myself belonging to the Steelers Wheel party, “clowns to the left of me jokers to the right”.It seems like people feel the need to tell others how they should feel, what they should think and then assign an unflattering label to those who don’t agree with them. So you just have to say “fuck’em.”

What have we failed to learn and accomplish since the Reagan years?
The metric system and world peace.

If you could have done on a date with Nancy Reagan back in 1984, where would you have taken her? What are all your best moves while on a date?  
C’mon, first of all, the song was a joke. Going on a date with Nancy in the ’80s would be like dating your friend’s grandmother. But to play along, I would have taken her to an early bird special at Bennigan’s or Beefsteak Charlie’s. Then end the night putting her to bed with some warm milk and cookies, like Michael Jackson did on his dates, describing it as charming and sweet.

Jim Reynolds of Left For Dead Records

What is Left For Dead Records and how long have you been around?
Left For Dead Records is a label I started to reissue interesting records that may have been overlooked or faced some strong headwinds in their day, like untimely band break ups, tour issues, etc.  It’s a labor of love and not a hamster wheel that I need to keep running on to keep the lights on.  The fact that I don’t care if the releases make tons of money, or that the label grows to be some huge punk powerhouse gives me the freedom to release whatever the fuck I like!  Btw, I especially like albums or EPs that were recorded back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but were shelved for some reason.  That was the case with the TMA Just Desserts EP.  Those songs were recorded around the same time as What’s for Dinner?, but were left off the record for one reason or another (probably because there were already 20 songs on the album!).  They’re some of the best songs the band recorded. 

The label has only been around since 2017.  That’s when we released the Just Desserts EP.  It took several years to put the TMA (full discography) Super Deluxe Box together.  I had to find the best existing master tapes, have them remastered–by Jack Butcher at Enormous Door, who did a bang up job, btw–and get Original Punk Magazine artist, Bruce Carleton to do the artwork, as well as talk to some cool writers who were fans of the band into writing liner notes… and track down band and fan photos, etc.  It was a long process.

How did you first learn about TMA?
It was sometime in 1982,  I believe, when I was looking for something new to put out on the Jimboco label, which I had started a few years earlier with a single by the Marbles.  I had been wanting to release an entire album on the label, but recording 10 songs or so back in those days was an expensive proposition.  Because of my practically non-existent budget, I had only put out 7-inch singles, like the Nasty Facts Drive My Car 45 and a couple of 12-inch EPs by The Nails and The Hi Sheriffs of Blue. 

At that point, I was thinking a compilation album might be the best way to go.  I was interested in a lot of the up and coming bands that were pushing the first wave of punk into a new place, bands like Minor Threat, Agnostic Front and Bad Brains.  I spent a lot of time on the LES and would go to A-7, which was ground zero for what was becoming known as hardcore in new york.  It was the beginning of what would blossom into a second wave of punk and a network of local scenes all around the country.  Laura Albert–who’s now famous for her J.T. LeRoy books, and punking the literary world–used to call me when I was a sales rep for an import and indie distributor in the early ’80s.  She bought some of the records in our catalog and was a big fan of hardcore bands like Minor Threat and the newer bands of that day.  I mentioned that I wanted to do a compilation album or a series of compilation albums with new hardcore bands and was thinking NJ would be a good place to start.  I thought I’d call it The Armpit of America.  She introduced me to TMA who sent me a demo of 25 songs. I was so blown away that I forgot all about the compilation album and decided to focus on releasing their album. I didn’t know at the time that they would end up being the least ambitious people I would ever meet.  If you read the liner notes included in the new album, you’ll understand. They were just like their songs and didn’t give a shit about a music career.  The band never left New Jersey, except for a couple of hardcore matinee shows at CBGBs and the record release parties I set up in Manhattan.  But despite that, the record developed a following and actually got played on a lot of college and community radio stations.  (With a lot of bleeps, of course.) 

How important were they to the New Jersey scene of the ’80s?
They were important to the scene in the New Brunswick, Princeton area, but bands like the Misfits and AOD were probably better known throughout the state at that time.

How did the TMA reissue come together?
That’s a good question.  I think it started back in 2011 or 2012 when I ran into Dave Oldfield (the lead singer on What’s for Dinnner?) on Facebook.  I had taken a time out from doing music stuff.  I married in 1991 and was concentrating on family life and raising 2 boys in Vermont.  But, I wanted to start a reissue label and told him I thought TMA would be a good start since the music is brilliant and deserved a second chance.  Of course, he agreed. This whole project would never have happened without his assistance and together our perseverance.

Were there any obstacles you encountered in putting together this collection?
Oh, shit, were there ever!  We originally wanted to remix the original 1-inch 8-track master, but discovered that the band hadn’t purchased the tape so it had been erased and recorded over by another band.  Cheap 8-track studios back in those days did that.  They would rent you the tape if you didn’t buy it.  I kick myself for not having the studio send me the original masters in 1983!  It would have cost, like $60 or $80. But, I didn’t know;  I just assumed the band had the multi-track masters.  Anyway, that meant we could only remaster from the existing 1/4-inch tape master.  Jack Butcher at Enormous Door did an amazing job, but I still wonder what we could have done with the original 1-inch master.  Thankfully, Bruce Carleton (original Punk Magazine Artist) who did the cover illustrations delivered a masterpiece!  BUT, ASSEMBLING all of the art and photos and liner notes… that’s a different story.  There was so much to keep track of, I was catching typos, mistakes, etc. right down to the wire.  I was glad that we were able to get all the What’s for Dinner? lyrics right.  Unfortunately, I gave up on the Beach Party lyrics because nobody helped me with those and I couldn’t decipher enough of them!

Why is it important to you that these records be reissued?
Because I think this is a record that really should be heard by a wider audience.  These guys wrote some great songs at a very young age, songs that still sound as funny, stupid and adolescent as they did in the ’80s, but with some deep truths just waiting to be extracted.  If you’d ask me for an example, I’d say “Shit Don’t Stink” sounds as relevant as ever.   I hope some young musicians and writers listen and find some inspiration in those and some of the other sage words on these records.

If someone was new to TMA, what three-songs would you recommend they start with?
It would depend on what they currently listen to… and read and watch (tv/movies).  I can tell you that my current faves are “Shit Don’t Stink”, “Crack Me Up”, “Surf Nazi”, “Ivory Girl”, “I’m So Tired” and “You’re So Fucked”.  A lot of guys who have been broke in their life can relate to “Penniless”. “Nancy Reagan” is a good one for people who love politics, irony and have a filthy sense of humor.

Pick up a copy of the Left for Dead reissues of TMA’s catalog here.

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