Though they’ve been together 37 years, 2018 brings a series of momentous anniversaries for 10,000 Maniacs. Thirty-five years ago, the band’s debut full-length album, Secrets of the I Ching, delivered a punk- and folk-influenced, classically attuned alternative rock sound, something woefully lacking in the synth-pop ’80s. The band achieved its height of mainstream fame 25 years ago, appearing on MTV Unplugged with a full string section and making waves when lead singer Natalie Merchant very publicly left the band to start a solo career. Violist and fellow vocalist Mary Ramsey was recruited to helm the ship shortly thereafter, and in 2018, 10,000 Maniacs are still going strong, writing new music, and delving into their deep back catalog to craft intimate acoustic sets sure to please fans old and new.
Folio Weekly: Most of 10,000 Maniacs’ upcoming tour dates are in short three- or four-show bursts. Does that work better for the band now?
Mary Ramsey: It does. We all have other jobs and families. We played four consecutive shows in Chicago over Valentine’s Day, and that was great because it allowed us to play some more eclectic stuff beyond the hits. We even played “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure, which was very fun.
Your last album of originals was out in 2013, the first 10,000 Maniacs full-length in 14 years. Is new material on the horizon?
Actually, John Lombardo and I just went down to Jamestown to meet Jerry Augustyniak and the other guys to write and record new ideas and get that going. It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s stimulating. A lot of songwriters who’ve had such beautiful hits and certain songs that everybody identifies with will continue writing, even if it’s not quite the same. And that’s OK, especially the way world is set up now. Writing new material for us is a continuation of what we’ve always done, without expectations. There’s not this sense of, “I’ve gotta write this amazing, epic song.”
What inspires you these days?
I just love listening to good songs. Last night, I heard a song by the band The Jerry Cans. They’re from way up in Canada-here in Buffalo, we get Canadian radio just by turning the knob-and they do a cool tribal Inuit voice singing. I didn’t even know about it!
You’ve been playing the viola for many years. How has your relationship with the instrument changed in that time?
It’s been such an extension of me for so long. You can always tell string players, especially viola players, by the mark on their neck. We used to call it the hickey, even though it doesn’t look like a hickey. What I find is, especially if I’m playing classical music, that kicks me in the butt in a certain way. The viola surprises me-like it’s a spirit. Under the ear, it’ll sound one way, but when it’s recorded, it sounds different. There’s something wonderful about it. If I don’t play for a while and I’m just living my life, talking to people, I’ll think, “What am I missing?” Then I pick up the instrument and go, “Oh, yeah-I’m back in this world where the music bubbles up and I don’t have to talk to people and I like it.”
I do like to talk to people, but I forget sometimes that there’s a whole other reality that comes from playing an instrument.
At the height of 10,000 Maniacs’ fame in the early ’90s, did you feel pressured to write a certain kind of song or achieve a particular level of success?
Certainly when Natalie decided she wanted to embark on a solo career and the fellows who were left asked John Lombardo and me to join, there was a sense of, “Let’s try to keep the momentum going and continue what happened before.” But the reality is, it’s hard to keep things the way they are. We had “More Than This,” which was the first hit I had with the band. But it was a time, a situation, and a transition when we knew that anything was possible. We all had this sense that we were doing something we felt we had to do-something we loved-and that we were going to do it against any kind of odds. And here we are now.