During the course of the global pandemic, we’ve pondered what powerful new creative ventures would be forged from the fires of this unique time period. Thankfully, our questions have been answered! The brainchild of John Cusimano, founder and singer/songwriter of NYC band, The Cringe, Fastest Land Animal unapologetically kicked open the floodgates with their hard-hitting, self-titled debut album. While Cusimano had been entertaining the idea of exploring a side project for years, it wasn’t until New York closed down in March, due to the pandemic, that he finally lit the fuse. With both the songs and the sound ingrained in his mind, he hit the bricks in search of the perfect blend of creative co-conspirators breathing life into his passion project. It wouldn’t take long for the pieces to fall into place! Along the way, he recruited legendary producer Don Gilmore (Eve 6, Linkin Park, The Cringe), working together over Zoom on song arrangements before completing the new power trio with Cringe bandmate, Jonny Blaze (guitar/bass) and friend Andrew Meskin (drums). Together, they created what will become one of 2021’s most talked about breakout albums.
Setting listeners up for a nine round bout, Fastest Land Animal is like a seasoned boxer in his prime, delivering an elegant array of perfectly placed, unrelenting sonic punches over the course of 30 minutes. From the fist-pumping riffs of “Answer In My Head” to the bouncy rhythms of “Bubble Candy to the razor-sharp grooves of “Never Gonna Leave,” each track offers a unique blend of knockout power. It’s a record that can’t be denied and one of the rare ones that stays with you long after you turn down the stereo. The self-titled album is out now via Listen Records — Buy / Stream album HERE!
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Fastest Land Animal’s John Cusimano and Andrew Meskin for an inside look at the making of the album, the challenges they faced along the way and what might be in store for them in the year to come!
Tell us about how you crossed paths and what got the ball rolling with Fastest Land Animal?
John Cusimano: We’ve all known each other for many years now. We’ve been in a band together called The Cringe for quite a while. Jonny Blaze is the bass player in the band and Andrew Meskin is the sometimes drummer in the band but is always…
Andrew Meskin: Around!
John Cusimano: [laughs] Yeah, he’s always around. I would have said he’s a compatriot but, yeah, he’s around. So, I had an idea. The Cringe is more of a mix of classic and grunge rock with big guitar riffs, guitar solos and plays to the cheap seats in arenas all over the country, continent and world. However, I always had this dream of something a little more punk rock with no big, bloated songs. Everything would be fast and short. The entire album is 30 minutes. I mean, if it was good enough for the Ramones, it’s good enough for us! [laughs] They cleared the way for that! Quite frankly, I never really loved the name for The Cringe but it kinda stuck with me and is something I’ve carried around since high school. For Fastest Land Animal, I came up with the name first. That was a few years back and I just thought it was a really cool sounding name and it would pair nicely with a bunch of fast songs from a punk rock sounding band. So, I had the idea, but I didn’t have the songs, or anything done. To give you a sense of the timeframe, this is going back pre-pandemic and crossing over into the Covid-19 pandemic. I had written a handful of songs, at least enough for an EP, which was our original idea. These songs were punky, fast and hooky. We called up our trusted producer, Don Gilmore, who worked on the last few Cringe records. You may know him from his work with bands like Linkin Park, Eve 6 and many, many other bands. At that point, we decided to record the EP.
The first challenge we had to overcome was that we were all in lockdown and literally in different corners of the country. The question became, “How are we going to do this without getting together in a studio, playing live and tracking over that?” We figured out a way! Andrew is really the techie who can tell you a lot more about that. With a combination of Zoom and an app you can use directly in your Pro Tools, Logic or whatever your digital audio workstation is, we figured out a way to record and communicate remotely. It actually ended up being very efficient and very fun! I think we actually saved time in the long run. The recording process is creative and that often inspires even more creativity, so I wrote some more songs until we had nine songs. In total, they were 30 minutes, which is a short album, but it was long enough to not be an EP anymore! That’s what we did!
I want to dive into the challenges of the recording process. Before I do, let’s touch on the connection you all have. What do you bring out in each other creatively?
John Cusimano: Wow! That’s a good question. I think Jonny is the most punk of all of us. I think he helps bring that authenticity to the band. He was the punk rock kid doing his thing, skateboarding around and growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. [Andrew] Meskin brings the awesome Bonham-esque drums and groove to the band. I bring the catering! [laughs]
Andrew Meskin: It’s great catering, honestly! [laughs]
John Cusimano: Well, my wife cooks everything, so there ya go! [laughs] That was the one thing we were not able to do while recording remotely. My wife wasn’t able to feed the band. As you know, an army marches on its stomach after all!
Andrew Meskin: We had to fend for ourselves and it was dangerous at times.
John Cusimano: We relied on Goldbelly gift certificates and that was about it! [laughs]
Andrew, if you will, tell us about the challenges you faced from a technical standpoint?
Andrew Meskin: Sure! With the pandemic, technology enhanced itself greatly in a very short period of time. I’d say we got three or four years of new technology in just a few months because of all this. No one knew what Zoom was before the pandemic and now everyone is Zooming everything! Our challenge was, “How do we do this record efficiently and still make it feel like we are a band together in a studio when we are nowhere near each other and we aren’t getting together anytime soon?” What we were able to do was talk to each other on Zoom, just like this, with video where we can see and hear each other really well. Also, there is this really great plugin. That’s not to say that there haven’t been great plugins in the past but this one made everything smoother. It’s called Audiomovers by a company called Listento.
Basically, that goes in your master bus in your DAW. This might get boring for some, but this lets a user send a little weblink out which enables everyone else to listen to anyone who is tracking in real-time with all of the plugins and the session. There is like a split-second latency and it’s really incredible! Essentially, we’re on Zoom with these guys and our producer, Don Gilmore. In my case, if I was tracking drums, I’d be sitting there with the camera. I’d have the session up and they would hear what we are doing in real-time. I would do a take and they can talk to me right after each take. We can adjust things and really go about it in a way that is super-efficient. At that point, we can send the session around to each person and they can add their parts. We would all be listening as the guitars and bass were done, along with the vocals.
Approaching things in that way let us give real-time feedback. Another great thing about it, and why we think it was a little more efficient than traditional studio time, is that if we went through three or four songs in a day and worked out all our parts, we could also go back and recut a certain part if needed. Using myself as an example, if I wanted to go back and recut drums and do a better take, I could do it on my own and just send it to the guys. In a traditional studio setting, we’re watching the clock and trying to get basics done and trying to get tracks done on a certain timeframe. The thought of two songs down the road, going back and changing something would be much more difficult. It would require us to go back, reset things up and it’s something that just doesn’t happen.
John Cusimano: Let me explain how glamorous being in a recording studio is! You go in there and the first day-and-a-half is spent mic-ing and EQing drums. There is nothing for the other guys in the band to do! So, this time around, Jonny and I didn’t have to sit around playing video games, ordering incessant amounts of takeout and being bored out of our minds while Meskin is EQing and mic-ing drums for a day-and-a-half! [laughs] Instead, he did that all on his own and we could just listen to and focus on other important parts. It was very efficient, timesaving and, quite frankly, money-saving. If you are paying for studio-time, it’s not cheap!
Andrew Meskin: Yeah, and it keeps the creativity going. There is nothing there to slow it down. It worked out really well for us. We all have our home studios and are all kinds of audio nerds, so it’s fun to actually use our gear, know what sound we’re going for and know we can just grab it from the shelf! If it’s a different snare drum, guitar or amp, it’s all there for us!
Is this an approach you might take when breathing life into future sessions or releases?
Andrew Meskin: I mean, look, going into a commercial studio, we recorded a bunch at The Power Station in New York. It’s one of the best commercial studio rooms. It’s amazing, it’s fun and it’s inspiring but I can’t imagine we’re not going to record more like this in the future. Even if we do go into a commercial studio for things here and there, I can’t imagine we aren’t going to take advantage of the tools we have at this point. Ya know, if something comes up where John writes a song, we can immediately lay it down and have it done the next day!
John Cusimano: I have to be honest. If you’re in a band, like a rock band, one of the main reasons you go to a studio is that you want a good sounding drum kit. It’s really hard to get that without a big studio with all of these special mics and all of this other stuff. Andrew has a really cool looking room with a whole bunch of drums and mics in there. I feel he was able to get just about as good a drum sound as we’ve ever gotten out of the Power Station, which is a preeminent live room — especially for drums! That was really encouraging. Once we had that as the foundation of the song, we were able to build form there. We wanted to use actual amps and not amp modeling or fake guitars or anything like that. I have enough vocal mics and preamps here that I can get as good a vocal sound as I’m going to get in a commercial studio. For vocals, it doesn’t matter how big or small the room is because you’re singing into a mic anyway. Like I said, despite all of us living in different parts of the country, we could do another Fastest Land Animal record very quickly.
In fact, I’m working on songs right now to bring to the band. We can record that album really quickly and efficiently without having everyone flying to New York, sit in a studio and spend however much it would cost a day for a studio, so why wouldn’t we? Don’t get me wrong, there may be situations in the future if we are doing a project that really requires the band to be together, create together and feed off of each other live, in-person and face-to-face, that’s one thing. Of course, there is no substitute for playing live in front of a crowd! That is obviously something you can’t recreate at home. That’s the one part of the process that we do really miss because of what’s going on in the world. We are really looking forward to touring but that’s not going to happen right now.
How does the songwriting process for Fastest Land Animal compare and contrast to what you’ve done in the past?
John Cusimano: The process for me has been similar, at least throughout the past several years. I’ll use my laptop. I have a program on there called Logic that I use for songwriting. It allows me to write a song onto the computer using real instruments, including drummer loops to be more like live drums. It’s really inspiring and kind of liberating once you know how to do that because it’s such a good tool for songwriting. I used to sit in my home studio, but my house burnt down recently. Luckily, the studio was spared. It’s above the garage but there’s a lot of construction going on up there so I can’t really have access to it right now. Right now, I’m sitting in a cellar. I’m living across the road from my burnt down house, which is in the process of being rebuilt, in a guest house that we have. This cellar is only accessible through a storm door, like in The Wizard of Oz! It’s that type of storm door! [laughs] My wife calls it the cellar that looks like you go to get killed in! [laughs] I set up a keyboard down there and a tiny little studio rig. It has some guitars and a microphone as well. It’s fine and it’s great for songwriting. I can go there to be alone.
Basically, I will write a bunch of demos. I try to write at least a song a week. If you write 52 songs a year, then eight or nine of them might be keepers. The others might be kind of good or some of them might stink but it’s all about exercising those songwriting muscles. It’s like anything else — use it or lose it! I do that every week and, at the end of a certain period of time, I will have a handful or more of songs that I feel like could work for a particular project. In the case of Fastest Land Animal, I will send them around to the guys in the band and the producer and say, “What do you guys think?” Sometimes I will get a lukewarm reception and sometimes I will get a greater reception than I anticipated. From that point, we have the ability to chop my demo up and rearrange it in a way that we all think could improve the song. We might think a verse should be longer or something should be shorter. Maybe a bridge should be inserted here or maybe there should be a guitar solo there. That’s how we arrange it. Once that is done, we now have a grid. Everything is done to a grid or a click track so everyone can work off the same thing and not get lost or confused. From there, we start with the drums first, the bass second, the guitars third and the vocals last.
With that said, there are nine fiery tracks on this debut album. Which of these songs came easiest and which were the hardest to nail down?
John Cusimano: The one that came the easiest was the one that ended up being the first song on the album, “Too Close To The Fire.” That one was a throwaway track that I had written and thought, “Yeah, there is something here, but I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’ll present it to the rest of the guys or if they will like it or not.” At the last minute, we found ourselves with eight songs and we were under a half-hour for the album. I said, “I don’t know. What do you guys think about this stupid thing?” They were like, “That thing is awesome! Yeah! We are definitely doing that song!” Like I said, ultimately, it ended up being the album opener. That was the easiest one to write.
I guess the least easy song to write was probably “Buried Alive.” I had written this really aggressive, punky song pre-pandemic. I was sitting in my dining room in New York City. It was one of those really busy, loud, construction noises filling the air, car horns blasting, subways zooming by and people screaming at each other on the street days in New York City. I just wrote a song about how frantic I was feeling at the time. It was really short, and it wasn’t really well thought out, so we had to do a lot of surgery and scalpel work on that song to get it to the form it is on the album. The basics were all there, but it was a matter of puzzle piecing all those things together, duplicating things and removing the excess. Ya know, there is something called Demoitis, which musicians all know about. When you record a demo, you get so used to it that when someone else listens to it and dares to change the arrangement or get rid of something, you are like “That’s my baby! What are you doing there?!” It’s very much like editing a book. You just have to step back! The producer will say, “You have demoitis. It’s an affliction. Don’t let it bother you. Trust me. You’ll get used to the new version of the song and this is better.” [laughs] That is inevitably what happens but it’s definitely a process!
You all have firsthand experience with blazing your own trails as musicians. What lessons learned early on in your career still resonate today?
John Cusimano: For me, it’s a cliche but they say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything. I think to be good at anything, you have to be repetitive to the point of muscle memory practice. Once you’ve achieved that, that’s when the magic happens! If we play a gig live, I can’t be thinking about the lyrics to the song or where my fingers will be on the guitar or keyboard. I need to be thinking about the crowd, the show and how we engage to make some organic magic happen! It really comes down to just practice, practice, practice until it becomes second nature to you, and you don’t need to think about what you’re doing. That goes whether you are practicing classical piano, practicing your jazz scale, practicing your songwriting ability or performing live and putting on a show. You need that 10,000 hours or more to achieve that comfort level. Ya know, the biggest compliment you can give is, “Wow, he makes it look easy.” That’s how you make it look easy, by putting in the work beforehand. Woodshed as we like to say! What do you think, Andrew?
Andrew Meskin: For me, as a drummer, there are two really important things that I learned early on. The first is to play to the track. Never just be a drummer playing as many notes as possible and trying to be flashy. You’re supporting. You’re the guy on the bottom of the track and you’re just playing to the track, so less is more for drums. The other thing I think is super important, and it’s unfortunate that so many people don’t understand how important this is, is to be an easy person to get along with. Be on time. Be prepared. Don’t be a pain in the butt! If you are going out with a band on tour, you’re with these people a lot! Oftentimes you are with your bandmates more than you are with your family, so if you are a drag to hang with, it’s never going to work out.
John Cusimano: Yeah, to Andrew’s point, you are traveling with a group of people and you don’t want to be herding cats. You have to make a flight, a train or be on time for a sound check. Those are things you can’t screw around with. A lot of these venues have unions, and they close down at certain points, so you can’t be late for a sound check. You can be early, but you can’t be late. You can’t miss a flight or leave other people stranded in hotel rooms. This is the boring, tedious stuff that the tour manager or road manger is supposed to take care of but it’s really important to have grownups on the road! Unless they have handlers! In which case you probably have a really awesome drummer who is throwing TVs out the window or driving cars in a swimming pool but he’s a rockstar and has his handler who will pick him up and pour him onto the bus! [laughs] That’s a whole other situation! It’s not the ‘80s anymore, so I’m not sure how much of that behavior goes on!
There’s no doubt a lot of people will love this record. What’s the best way for us to support you in these strange times?
John Cusimano: Our music is available everywhere you can consume music. Be sure to listen and subscribe. The more views and subscriptions we have the better it is for us and the more we will be able to be out there. We are really looking forward to being able to tour. We definitely want to go on the road and play shows in a city near you. In the meantime, we are working on our next album, at least in my mind but eventually in reality now!
Andrew Meskin: FastestLandAnimal.band is the website. You can find all the music, merch and more there!
Before I let you go, I have an important question for you, John. I know you have a reputation for being quite the mixologist. What drink would pair best with Fastest Land Animal’s debut album?
John Cusimano: I’m going to say that you want to do a Pickleback with this album, which is a shot of whiskey with a pickle juice shot to follow! I say that because it’s a little nasty, a little bitter, a little vinegary and it’s very rock ‘n’ roll. It’ll get you where you need to go pretty quickly!
I love it! Thanks so much for your time today guys! I really appreciate it. Most importantly, thank you for the amazing vibes on this album. It’s a breath of fresh air!
John Cusimano: Thank, Jason! We really appreciate it, buddy!
Andrew Meskin: Thanks, man!
Connect with Fastest Land Animal:
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.