For the past few years, Fastest Land Animal (FLA) has been one of the best-kept secrets in rock “n” roll. Thankfully the secret is out! An energetic punk rock band consisting of native New Yorkers, John Cusimano, aka Screamin’ Jack Novak (vocals), Jonny Blaze, aka Alfonse Castillo (guitars and bass), and Andrew Meskin, aka Shark Samuels (drums). Formed during the worldwide shutdown, FLA took recording into their own hands, writing and laying down tracks from their respective homes before releasing their self-titled debut in 2021. Their fresh approach to punk rock and innovative music videos have gained them a strong social media following, as well as multiple videos with over one million views and touring slots with several legendary rock acts.
Parlaying this momentum into a prolific creative season despite the distance between them with Jack in New York, Alfonse in Arizona, and Shark in Texas. Beaming in Los Angeles-based producer Don Gilmore [Linkin Park, Avril Lavigne], the group began tracking what would become their next record. This time around, they increased the presence of analog synths, leaned on Gilmore’s impeccable tone selection, and even broke their own “no songs slower than 150BPM” rule. With distortion cranked, synths warm, and no regard for the rules, Fastest Land Animal fearlessly turned it up to eleven letting the chips fall where they may. The resulting album, ‘East Coast, West Coast, In Between’ soon emerged from the ether. With a robust blend of glorious gutter punk, revved-up rock ‘n’ roll, and off-kilter pop, the album serves as a vital rock record for 2023 and offers glimpses into things to come for this band on the rise.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Screamin’ Jack Novak to discuss his musical roots, the making of Fastest Land Animal’s sophomore album, and the evolution of their sound. Along the way, the charismatic frontman gives insights into his creative process and the band’s sonic trajectory.
There’s no denying that music has played a significant role in your life and has provided you with many stories to tell. So let’s go back to the beginning. What are your first memories of music?
My earliest memory is that my parents had an old turntable and “Sgt. Pepper’s” on vinyl, which goes back a while. I was just a toddler at the time. They would put the album on for me, and I would get really angry when it ended. I would scream, “More! More! More!” This went on and on. Eventually, after having them play it repeatedly, it ended, and I ripped the cover off. Years later, when I inherited my parent’s vinyl collection, I got mad at them for letting me rip. The album cover. It was a beautiful, original, mono-pressing first release, and I had ruined it! [laughs] Luckily for me, my wife has a talk show; years later, Ringo Starr was on the show. At that point, he had famously said he was no longer signing things. So my wife said, “Come to the show. Ringo is here! Bring that album with ya!” So I brought it, and Ringo looked at it and said, “I wish ya had today me. I would’ve gotten you a new one!” He signed it! He wrote, “To John, Love Ringo.,” which I thought was really cool!
That is beyond cool! When it comes to music, you grew up in a great era. What went into finding your creative voice in those formative years?
I started taking piano lessons when I was six. I took to it right away. My Dad, he played guitar, so he taught me three chords, and I self-taught myself from there. Cut to a few years later, in junior high going into high school, and I was dating this woman who was a drummer. She gave me her drum kit until she broke up with me, and then she took it back! So, I had a piano, guitar, and drums. I just kept playing everything that I was doing. Obviously, I was classically trained, and then I started taking jazz lessons. As far as rock and popular music went, I figured that out with the old hunt-and-peck method. I would listen to something and say, “Okay, that sounds like this chord, and this sounds like that.” Then, I started putting it all together. I wasn’t relying too much on sheet music when it came to rock music, but certainly charts and sheet music when it came to classical.
My father had a big influence on me because he was the one who first handed me a guitar. He said, “If you listen to any Bob Dylan songs, there are only three chords. If you can play three chords, you can play a million songs.” Artist-wise it was bands like the Beatles, The Who, and Hüsker Dü, a little later on. From there, I was really inspired by the whole punk/new wave scene with The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Pretenders, and the angry singer/songwriter scene like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. Those are some of the influences that formed me early on.
You’ve had a lifelong love affair with rock ‘n’ roll. So what does it mean to you in 2023?
Rock ‘n’ roll has not really changed much for me. The thing that is different about it now, as opposed to when I was younger or even 10 to 15 years ago, is the accessibility for musicians to create their own music on a laptop at home. When I was younger, you used a Fostex tape machine or had to go to a studio. It was challenging and expensive to create songs and albums or even record different tracks simultaneously. Now, anyone with a laptop or an iPhone can do it. You can record multiple tracks at once, glue them together, mix, and master them for almost no money. That’s really cool that it opens up the floodgates. On the other side, there is so much to go through to get your music out there. It used to be that if you were on an album or discovered by an A&R guy and you toured, once you were on that label, there weren’t that many other artists out there. It was basically just those who were signed. Now, everybody’s online. Trying to break through all that activity is the challenge for bands and musical acts these days. It’s either trying to do something viral online or doing what we do by releasing albums and tour, tour, tour, which is what we do. It’s probably not the most efficient way to do it, but it’s how we learned to do it and what’s the most fun for us. We love being in front of an audience and playing these songs live.
You’ve poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into your work, both inside and outside the music business. How did that drive end up in your creative DNA?
I’m really driven. One of my favorite cliches, but it’s called a cliche because it’s real, is “Practice makes perfect.” I’m very task driven, so if I start something, I’m not going to let up until it’s done. I’ll practice my piano every day for at least an hour and a half to two hours. I’m always writing and have to write at least one song weekly. I’m part of “The Song Game” with a singer/songwriter, Bob Schneider. I’ve been in it for decades now! The idea is that Bob sends out a phrase or word, and by the end of that week, you have to have written and recorded a song incorporating that phrase or word. Then you send it to everyone else in the group. You don’t comment on the other person’s song; it’s not about that. It’s about exercising your songwriting muscle. Knowing that other people will hear it, you have to try to write something. What is fun about that and songwriting, in general, is that sometimes the songs you think are terrible and aren’t going to amount to anything end up being the best songs! You hear that story all the time with bands. Sometimes a band’s biggest hit will be the one they thought was a throwaway and didn’t expect to make the album. That repetitiveness is key in songwriting. It’s the same thing when it comes to playing live. I’m not happy when I’m playing live unless I’m at the point where I’ve played the show so many times that it’s almost effortless. I’m not thinking about the words, how to sing this part, or where my fingers will be if I’m playing an instrument. I’m thinking about the crowd and putting on the best show possible. It gives you a level of confidence that can only be achieved through practice.
As you’ve said, you’ve been a songwriter for years now. How do you feel you’ve most evolved at the craft?
It has become easier for me, especially the tune or song part and the assembly part. Whether you are working on a digital audio workstation, on tape, or however you are recording the song, knowing what’s going to work where and gluing it all together and making it a song comes to me a lot easier to me now. Lyrics have always been the biggest challenge to me. They don’t come naturally. I will usually write the music first, and then I write and rewrite the lyrics until they are right where I want them. When we record our albums, it helps that I work with producer Don Gilmore, who we’ve done a bunch of albums with now. He’s not only a really good sounding board, but he’s also the captain of the ship and charts where we should go with each song and lets us know when it’s ready. That’s another thing that bands do; they keep going and going and going. They don’t know when it’s soup! “Okay, it’s done! You can stop recording now!”
Let’s jump into all things Fastest Land Animal. The last time we spoke, you had just released the debut record in the middle of the pandemic. However, you guys were able to make the most of it. Could you tell us a little about the ups and downs of that first record cycle?
With the first album, we were all sitting at home and couldn’t go anywhere. There were no gigs, obviously. This was the beginning to the middle of the pandemic. We were all living in different areas of the country, but we all had home studios. I’m on the East Coast. Our drummer is in Texas, and our bass player/guitar player is in Arizona. Our producer, Don Gilmore, is on the West Coast. We couldn’t get together, but we could all record. We all had good quality gear at home, so we were able to work by talking over Zoom like we are now. There is also a program called Audiomovers, which allows you to listen and record in almost real-time with quality that is almost as good as if you were sitting in the control room of a studio with the band. We would play our parts separately and glue them all together at the end. It ended up sounding great, and if you didn’t know we recorded it remotely, you wouldn’t have known. That was liberating! We released that album, and several months later, there were vaccines available, bands started going back out again, and people started getting back to their lives. We ended up playing a bunch of shows with the band that we had toured with quite extensively before the pandemic, and it was like old home week. It was really great! The crowds recognized us. We were a different band when we went on tour with them before the pandemic. We were a band called The Cringe, but now we are Fastest Land Animal, but it’s a lot of the same guys. All of the guys in the band that we toured with knew us, and the crowd seemed to know who we were, so it was a lot of fun getting back out there. Somewhere in that process, we decided, “Hey, let’s do another album!” We knew we had to do it remotely because we were still living in different areas of the country, and it’s easier to work around our schedules if we can all work from home. That way, you don’t have to worry about everyone schlepping to New York and paying for a big music studio. So, we made the album, and now we’re going to head back out on the road!
Tell us a little about your headspace going into this new album.
I wanted to do something very similar to what we did with the first Fastest Land Animal record. Because of “The Song Game,” that I had spoken about earlier, I had songs starting to pile up. The idea with Fastest Land Animal was that I wanted to do something a little more punk-oriented than the music I had done in the past. The idea was “nothing slower than 150 BPM.” That was the edict we went by when writing songs for the first album. I kept writing songs that were fast, and before I knew it, I had another eight or so songs. At that point, I said, “Okay, guys. Let’s do it again!” We were all excited, and it was even easier this time around because we knew what we were doing. It wasn’t a new process for us. At the very end, we were at least one song short of what felt like a comfortable length for a long-playing album. There is a song that I had written about 15 years ago that I had just kicking around. It’s called “Cowboys In Nashville.” When I wrote that song, it was pretty agro and fast at that time. I said, “Hey, let me dust this off!” That was the last song on the album and the second single we released from the album.
You mentioned producer Don Gilmore. How did you originally cross paths, and what does he bring to the table for a band like Fastest Land Animal?
How did we cross paths with him? This is going back about 4 albums ago, two The Cringe albums ago. We hadn’t worked with a producer up until that point. The last two albums we had done before we started working with Don were real struggles. Production-wise we needed to figure out what decisions to make. I didn’t know what vocal take to use. I wasn’t sure if this was the direction of the song or if the drum sound was in the right direction. We were all being tortured over this process. So, for the next album, I said, “We’ve got to work with a producer.” That led to us all throwing a bunch of names in the hat. These were producers we thought were available and would want to work with us. Don was near the top of the list, and we all agreed on him based on the work he had done with bands like Linkin Park, Eve 6, and a bunch of others. Somehow we got his number, so I called him! He picked up and said, “Send me your demos.” We did, and he said, “Yeah, I think we can work together on this!” That was that, and now we are five albums in with him, and he’s our buddy! I absolutely love working with him. He’s outstanding when it comes to working with vocalists. You’ll sing enough takes that he knows he has what he needs and not have too many takes. It’s a good process!
There are so many great songs on “East Coast, West Coast, In Between.” Which song resonates with you the most at this point in time?
I would say that “Out of Range,” which is the first single off the album, is probably the one. There are always one or two songs on an album where the lyrics come really easily to me. That was one of them. It started with me singing the phrase “out of range” phonetically. All of a sudden, I had all of these visuals in my head of a dusty border town and a guy who’s stranded and can’t get home. He’s out of range. The song wrote itself at that point. Ironically, that is one of two songs on the album that are slower than 150 BPM. I think “Out of Range” is 130 BPM. It’s still fast enough, but we weren’t so stringent on that 150 BPM on this album. That’s the one that stands out to me the most!
What do you consider the biggest challenge of making this record?
We were all so busy doing other things that it was a challenge to get everyone to get focused on it and finish their parts. I work pretty quickly, and the vocals are the last thing you want to do on the record. Once I got cookin’ with Don, assuming I was available and at home, we burned through those vocals pretty quickly. I think it took us about a week, and then we were done with the vocals. There was a lot of other music leading up to that and some rewriting of parts to get different sounds. That took a little longer than I wanted it to. As I said, the lyric thing is always a bit of a struggle for me, but I just kept rewriting and rewriting. With that said, we didn’t encounter anything horrible. Ya know, in the past, I’ve been in sessions where I’ve had an entire 8 hours of work accidentally erased. Of course, we were working with tape at the time. It’s hard to erase stuff if you are working digitally on the computer, but I guess it can happen. By and large, everything ended up working out pretty well.
What do you think people would be most surprised to learn about this record?
We did use a lot more synth on this album than we did on the last one. By synth, I don’t mean a synth patch on a computer. I mean actual, real analog synths like the one I’m sitting in front of right now. We used this a lot on the album. It’s an old Moog. There was just something about it, especially the sub-base parts. They have these really fat oscillators that are generating actual soundwaves that aren’t being created with zeros and ones. It was really inspiring to mess around with the frequencies of the oscillators, detune them a little bit and add in different frequencies. I did a lot of that on my own, messing around with the different dials and buttons until I found a really cool sound. That really expanded the possibilities of what we were able to do with that album in that way. It’s more of a new wave trick than a punk rock trick, so maybe we are a few years past punk now and into the new wave era.
Speaking of synth, the album features an excellent cover of “Next To You” by The Police. What went into breathing new life into that tune?
Even though we had “Cowboys In Nashville,” we still wanted one more song. We had never recorded a cover before, even though we would dust off a cover from time to time for the live show. We had never recorded one, so we wanted something from that late-punk, early-new wave era, but we couldn’t agree on a song. I was thinking we could do a Hüsker Dü song, and some of the other guys thought we might do a Sex Pistols song. We couldn’t figure it out. We wanted something that if we performed it live or heard it on the album, they’d think, “Do I know that song?” By that, I mean we didn’t want something so obvious that everyone would know it was a cover. So, Alfonse, aka Jonny Blaze, is a huge fan of The Police. He came up with the idea of doing “Next To You” because it’s not such an obvious Police track. A lot of people know it, but a lot of people probably don’t know it, and it’s fast and a song that we all love. We said, “Heck, let’s do it!” Instead of the guitar solo, we added a synth solo, which I played live on the old vintage synths. Shark Samuels, aka Andrew Meskin, came up with the half-time idea during the verses. That helped to distinguish it a little bit, and it wasn’t such a blast-out-of-the-gates thing. That one we do play live, and it’s a lot of fun!
As you’ve mentioned, you are an artist who is always writing and one who isn’t afraid to explore musically. Do you have a vision for Fastest Land Animal moving forward?
Yeah, I think we’re going to keep using the synths and maybe even go a little heavier for the next album. I’m thinking of crunchier vocals and more rough-sounding guitar parts in an effort to unpolish the polished edges that we have, so to speak.
You mentioned you would be hitting the road for a tour, but what else do you have in store for us in the months to come?
We’ve got to make some videos! So, we will be doing that. I’m always writing, so I’m already writing for the next album. We’ve gotta start rehearsing and get on the road, hopefully in the next 6 to 8 weeks or so!
Last time around, we ended the interview with a bit of advice, as you have quite a reputation as a mixologist. You recommended “The Pickleback” as your drink of choice. What’s a good rock “n” roll drink to pair with “East Coast, West Coast, In Between”?
I’m going to say “The Old Fashioned” because we’re using old-fashioned synths. An Old-Fashioned starts with whiskey. You can use bourbon or rye. Then you put some simple syrup or muddle a sugar cube in the bottom of the glass. Add in a few dashes of Angostura bitters. Then add in your whiskey, add ice and stir it until it’s nice and chilled. Then you want to do a little orange twist on top. If you want to be crazy, you can even light a match under the orange twist, squeeze the twist skin-side down over the match, and flame it! That will give it a little caramelization to the twist, which you drop right into the glass. I tend to use rye instead of bourbon. There are a lot of good ryes out there, but the bourbon to me is usually too sweet for me. I like the whiskey a little reedier or woodsier, so that’s why I go with the rye whiskey instead of the bourbon.
Another great choice to accompany a fantastic new record. Thanks again for your time today, John. I can’t wait to catch you guys on the road! Keep the good stuff coming!
Thanks, buddy; I appreciate it, Jason! Take care.
Fast Land Animal will release ‘East Coast, West Coast, In Between’ on January 20th, 2023.
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.