13.1 Miles to Go
Thousands of Competitors and supporters expected at the Inaugural Scranton Half Marathon
Step outside for a few minutes. Pick a direction. Start running. Congratulations, you’re officially healthier than you were a few minutes ago. The benefits of running as exercise are innumerable, so it’s not surprising the sport has exploded as we take a bigger focus on health. The Steamtown Marathon is a nationally renowned event that draws runners from all over the world, but the grueling 26.2-mile length puts it out of reach for many average people. The 13.1-mile half marathon format has increased in popularity as a more achievable progression for beginning and intermediate runners, while providing a step in training for advanced runners preparing for full marathons. That demand is what drove the creation of the inaugural Scranton Half Marathon, kicking off Sunday at 9 a.m. outside Memorial Stadium.
Matt Byrne of Scranton Running Co. said he has been hearing demand for a half marathon in Scranton for years. “Last year, I was approached by [former mayor] Chris Doherty,” said Byrne. “He had participated in a lot of our 5k and 10k races. He’d been hearing the chatter and requests just like I had, that Scranton needs a half marathon. He said he would help get the support going with the city and police.”
Further support from the community helped the idea move from a suggestion to reality. With corporate sponsorship underway and a committee taking shape, it was time to firm up details for the event. “We picked a date about six months away from the Steamtown Marathon – we thought it would be nice to be a halfway-to-Steamtown type of thing,” said Byrne. “The spring is always a good time, and even though early April can be iffy with the weather, it looks like we might get lucky! Things were great right off the bat — everyone was excited to get on board and the response has been amazing.”
The half marathon committee was hoping for a response of about 1,000 to 1,500 for the inaugural event. Instead, the numbers swelled to 2,500 in January after registration opened. “We could have probably raised it up to 5,000,” said Byrne. “We opened up a lottery for 200 more spots, and that sold out in a couple days.”
While the demand was high, Byrne said the committee decided to keep the entry limited for the first year. “There’s a lot to manage,” he said. “You’re not entirely sure what the course can hold. You want to make sure you can handle it — you’re inviting a lot of people. It’s important to make the first year go off well, and then maybe next year we’ll go even bigger.”
Of the 2,700 participants, nearly 2,500 are from Pa. and nearly 2,000 are from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. Out-of-state visitors include Florida, Vermont, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Illinois, Arizona and other states. “It’s mostly new runners — we certainly have our rippers (we had an elite who signed up from New York who’s pretty darn fast, who will give some of our local runners a good race), people who will finish in an hour and 10 minutes or so, but the bigger picture is the beginners,” said Byrne. “There are about 1,250 people who signed up and have never done a half-marathon before. It’s very beginner-oriented, and has a very local feel. Word finally got out, but by then it was mostly sold out. The locals said, ‘We want it. We need it. We’ve been asking for it,’ so they really showed up when we made the announcement.”
The race begins and ends on Providence Road at Memorial Stadium at Scranton High School. The course will take runners from Providence to Main Avenue, through North Scranton, to Green Ridge via Green Ridge St. and Sanderson Avenue, around Electric Street and a long stretch down Washington Avenue. Continuing to Adams Avenue downtown, runners will zig-zag down Spruce Street, around Franklin Avenue to Lackawanna Avenue, and head into South Side via Cedar Avenue. With a turn down Elm Street, the course will bring runners to the Lackawanna Heritage Trail, which will bring them back to Memorial Stadium for an “Olympic-style” finish on the track.
“It was pretty easy to come up with the course with the addition of the Lackawanna Heritage Trail,” said Byrne. “The new section they put in made it easy for us to avoid hills. I personally have no problem with hills, but as an all-encompassing, welcoming race, you don’t want to have too many. We needed to stay in the valley as much as possible without duplicating too much.” As a result, the course is mostly flat, and will be inviting to first-time runners or advanced runners looking to improve their personal time.
Providence Road near Memorial Stadium will be closed by the city for the event for the safety of the runners, volunteers, and supporters. Tim Holmes, director of marketing for Times-Shamrock Communications and the organizer of the post-race events, said that the 2,700 registered participants are expected to draw a significantly larger crowd of supporters. “Just about every single one of those people has someone at least holding a bag for them,” said Holmes. “I’d say 5,000 people would be the minimum — you have a lot of first-time runners, there will be a lot of support. When you have that many people congregating in one area at one time, you don’t know what it looks like. The city has to keep everyone safe.”
With the street already shut down, it was a perfect opportunity to set up an official post-race party and create a fun atmosphere throughout the race. Live entertainment including the Coal Town Rounders will be featured on the Mohegan Sun stage set up at George’s Garage. Food and drink specials, as well as outdoor fan areas and refreshments will be available at Stalter’s Cafe, Glider Diner and The V-Spot. Fans and finishers will also be able to find a variety of food at the food trucks stationed nearby, including What The Fork Truck, Southwest Savory Grill and Nico’s Pizza.
Mike Stalter, owner of Stalter’s Cafe on Providence Road near the start and finish line, says he jumped at the chance to be involved with the post-race party. “I’m all in,” he said. “I love these kinds of big events in Scranton, and I love the hospitality businesses getting together to help promote them.”
There will be plenty of time for supporters to enjoy the atmosphere before and during the race, and it won’t be long before the first runners begin to return, said Holmes. “It’s a great fan experience to be here from the start,” he said. “The start of the race will take 15 minutes or more just to get everyone out. But the first group of runners will probably be back within an hour and a half, an hour and 15 minutes.”
While the main event focuses on adults pushing themselves to chew up those 13.1 miles, the half marathon will also have plenty of fun for the kids. Whether it’s simply enjoying the surroundings or wanting to emulate older runners, families with kids will find plenty to do.
“It’s a really family-friendly event. We’ll have face-painters, and we have a one-quarter mile kids’ run that kicks off at 9:30 a.m. on the track [at Memorial Stadium],” said Byrne. “We’ll have three groups of kids: 5-6, 7-8, and 9-10 who will all run a one-quarter mile. Including the kids really just brings home the whole thing.”
Proceeds from the half marathon will benefit the Lackawanna Heritage Valley and the continued development of the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail, and a significant portion of the course takes place along the newly renovated portions of the trail. “Some people might not have heard about the work they’ve done,” said Stalter. “With 2,700 runners going over such a nice, highlighted piece of our community, maybe each of them tells one person. That’s another 2,700 people. Then they tell another person, and all of a sudden, you’re bringing a lot more people into these parts of town.”
It’s a section of the city that typically doesn’t draw big crowds. “We used to call it ‘the moon’ down there,” Byrne said with a laugh. “It felt like the moon. It was nothing but dust and gravel down there forever.”
The most recent updates to the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail were unveiled in 2013, drawing visitors for multiple reasons. The wide, well-maintained route along the river entices anyone looking to enjoy the outdoors: walkers, runners, cyclists, and even anglers who access the river to try their luck with a hook and line.
“This river is looking good, and it deserves to be shown. It smells good, it looks good and people are fishing down there,” said Byrne. “They’ve worked really hard to renovate this portion of the trail, so I think it’s great to showcase. And I think people need to see it.”
The buzz surrounding the half marathon has been building since its announcement, and people have been hitting the pavement training in preparation. “Anyone who walks, runs, bikes, or drives around the city sees groups and groups of people training for it,” said Stalter. “I love it — it doesn’t matter what time of day, what the weather is, you run into groups of people training. It’s great to see.”
As of press time, the forecast for Sunday is partly cloudy in the mid-50s with no rain. The early spring weather will hopefully mirror similar autumn mild temperatures of the Steamtown Marathon.
“It’s been a mixed bag over the last couple of weeks, but it’s been looking better and better,” said Byrne. “The forecast looks like it’ll be great weather for running, so I feel good about it.”
The Scranton Half Marathon is shaping up to be a signature spring event for the city, and planners are already looking ahead to increasing the size in the future. Right now, though, the focus is on creating a fun event and atmosphere that will be enjoyable for runners, supporters, and fans alike. “This is one of the many great things for Scranton,” said Holmes. “Big towns need big events, it brings people to town. You want to keep younger people in town, you need to have events like this. We’re going to have a great crowd, it’s going to be a great day. The committee has done a fantastic job putting all of this together.”
— tucker hottes
Up Close & Personal
Running and Recovery
Alexis Johnson isn’t very different from most of us. There’s nothing about talking to her that would give the impression that she’s got a story unlike most people, and definitely nothing that conjures up images of prison, hospitals and the depths of addiction. After struggling with difficult times, Johnson has used her past two years of sobriety to focus energy on being positive and helping others. She will celebrate those two years running the inaugural Scranton Half-Marathon on April 6. In addition, Johnson is raising funds for her “Running for Timmy” organization which will assist the family of a close friend who took his own life in February. We spoke with her about these difficult subjects, and throughout discussions of tragedy and hardship, Johnson’s positive message shined through: there’s always a choice to turn your life around and help is always there for those willing to ask.
Tell us a little about your background.
I’m 31 and I live in Jessup. I graduated from Bishop O’Hara High School in 2000, and went to Penn State. I have a BS in Criminology, double minors, and did a study abroad program in London in 2005. I traveled all throughout Europe. To be brief, I fell on some hard times — I battled through an addiction that got pretty heavy. I have some DUIs, and have been in and out of jail. On April 7, I’ll be two years sober. I try to do a lot of giving back. I work for Gibbons Ford and I do a lot of volunteer work. I’m running a fundraiser, a charity for my one of my best friends who recently committed suicide, and left behind his wife and two little girls.
Where would we start to get to know you better?
Well, I had a normal childhood. I went away to school and was a model student and athlete. I went to Penn State, joined a sorority and it was all downhill from there. I got my first DUI at 18 and fell apart after that. I got my second one in 2006. I didn’t know what was going on — I couldn’t stop. I was in a bad car accident in 2008 and two weeks later, I lost my sister to cancer. That was a really dark period in my life. Unfortunately, that’s when things started to get really bad for me. I’ve had a couple of overdoses, and I’ve been in and out of jail. My wake up call was when I actually woke up in state prison, with no felonies, no idea how I got there — it was strictly from being an alcoholic and an addict. It was mostly with my own prescriptions, which is happening now with a lot of young people. They’re getting hooked on painkillers, it’s leading to harder drugs, and I’ve watched a lot of people die or go to jail. I’ve lost my three best friends to addiction, and I myself have had four overdoses. I’m very grateful to be alive, and I don’t waste a second of any day.
I really try to give back, especially to younger women who may not have had the upbringing that I had, where I was grateful and very lucky with my childhood. I know a lot of people who grew up “on the other side of the tracks,” and for me to turn out the way that I did having my kind of upbringing kind of shocked a lot of people. I shocked myself. I had full scholarships to every college I applied to; I had the world at my feet. It just goes to show that addiction and that lifestyle really has no barriers on who it attracts. I unfortunately lost 12 years of my life. Some people take a cup of coffee for granted, or the ability to wear your own clothes and sleep in your own bed at night — I’m grateful for all of that, because I lost all of it. It’s taken me a while to get it all back. And now it’s been two years sober from everything — closer to five since I’ve had a drink. I don’t have a lot of friends today because a lot of them are dead. The ones I do have, I hold on to and try to make good decisions in life today, and be a better, sober person on a daily basis.
Within the last two years, my life has made a complete 180. I just want to do the next right thing and give back, that’s what I’m trying to do with the fundraiser.
Has it helped you to work with other people who are struggling with addiction?
Absolutely. They help me more than I help them. I see people who come in a week or 10 days sober with the shakes and they can’t deal with reality. It reminds me of where I came from. My first five and a half months sober were in prison, and I came back out and had to deal with everyday life. I’m sure some people didn’t have that drying out period. They’re just trying to wing it or maybe the courts force them to. And then you have to deal with that stigma of being an alcoholic, or a junkie — the perception is you’re no good. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. “You’re going to keep calling me these names, I’m going to keep doing what it is you say I am.” It took this long for me to actually be OK with who I am. I don’t dwell on the past, but I don’t forget about it either. I can’t forget about where I came from. I can’t forget how bad it got. Prison, rehab, near death, — it was bad. Some people don’t feel like young, professional people can have these problems. There’s a stereotype that goes along with being an alcoholic that I don’t think people want to believe. They don’t want to think it’s so common. Someone can look at me and think, “wow, she’s got a great job and she’s in recovery — maybe it’s not so bad.” It is a better way of life. If my story can help one person open their eyes or do something different with their life and not lead the same life I led in terms of addiction, then what I went through was worth it.
Thanks for sharing your story. It has to be tough to be so candid about all of this.
Thank you. It’s not always easy. I can’t sit here and tell you that reliving my story is a good time, because it’s not. It’s a dark past and I’m not proud of the things I’ve done, but what I can say is I’m proud of who I am today and I will not make those mistakes again.
Tell us more about the half-marathon and the fundraiser you’re organizing.
It’s the first ever Scranton Half-Marathon on April 6. I don’t even know the course yet, other than it starts and ends at Memorial Stadium, it’s a standard 13.1 miles. On Valentine’s Day, a very dear friend of mine ended up taking his life. He left behind a wife and two little girls — the youngest just turned one in November. Unfortunately, life insurance policies don’t cover suicide. So the family is in a little bit of tough times. Once the initial shock wore off, I went into “what can I do” mode to find out what I could do to help out. She’s a nurse and she works crazy hours, and even getting a second job wouldn’t be enough. I thought with some of the contacts and support I’ve gained through recovery, why not see if I could do something to help with that financial burden? A couple years ago, I lost another friend to suicide. He was also an addict, and wound up taking his own life. This was the second time I had to go through this. I know there’s a lot of awareness out there from groups like Out of the Darkness, and maybe if we continue to get out the message that it’s such a permanent “solution.” It’s not like taking a vacation for a week — you’re not coming back.
Right, it’s not a “solution” to anything.
No. That person might think that their problem is solved, but the people they left behind are the ones who have to deal with the pain and the repercussions. My goal is to raise between five and $10,000. I’m doing it to get sponsors just to finish the 13.1 miles. There’s also going to be a basket raffle the day of the race. I’ve already been on the horn with businesses to donate gift cards, services, or other baskets to be raffled off. I have an account set up at PNC bank. Anybody can make donations at any PNC bank in the country: the organization name is Running for Timmy. It’s located in Region 30. I also have an online donation site set up through my Facebook account through Pay it Square. On the day of the race, whatever money has been raised through the basket raffles, online and through PNC bank, I’m going to combine the total into one check and give it to (Timmy’s family). Hopefully, this can help ease what she’s going through.
After the run, do you plan to continue to raise awareness?
Probably. I don’t know what I’ll do yet. I’m not entirely sure. I’ll probably take it a day at a time and see what comes out of it. I’ll probably sleep for one or two days, then head back to work. I would like to make this a yearly event. I have some talented friends — one does magic, one does comedy — maybe set up fundraising show. I haven’t really considered it yet — I’m trying to make it through this without dying!
What has training been like? It’s not an insignificant amount of preparation to run a half-marathon a couple weeks from now.
I can’t even lie, I haven’t run in a while. I’ve been doing a lot of Crossfit and high-intensity cardio training. Some of the sessions are over an hour. I used to run cross-country in high school, so I’ve run distances before. It’s just that high school was 14 years ago. I’m heading to Florida for a few days, it’s my first vacation in eight years. When I get back from that I’ll have exactly two weeks, and I’m going to start pounding the pavement — literally — for those two weeks to get my legs used to the constant pace. I’m going to say a lot of prayers!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We have choices in life. We can always wallow in what we’ve been dealt, and pray for things we don’t have and wish our life was different. — but it’s the one we’ve got. The only thing I can’t do today is drink and use drugs. I can do anything else in this world that I want to do. For anybody who’s struggling with an addiction, there’s help out there and it’s OK to ask for it. I heard a quote in a meeting once that went something like, “The only time an addict or an alcoholic should look down on another is when they’re reaching out their hand to help them up.” That’s how I try to live my life. I’m grateful to be in recovery.
— tucker hottes
Up Close & Personal
The Grass is Green
For many people migrating to the 570, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre are “the big cities” compared to smaller towns throughout the region. Others, like Aja Wentum, come from bigger cities and farther away locations. It’s not always the first stop on someone’s journey, but Wentum told us first impressions can often be misleading. After hopping around the globe following his childhood years in Ghana, high school in Oregon and years spent in London, Wentum wound up in Scranton and is embarking on a new chapter of life. Hot yoga entered his life as a professional interest, but it has also helped refocus his career, mind, body and spirit. We spoke to Wentum about his life and how Scranton, of all places, led him to work with one of the premiere hot yoga instructors and studio designers in the world. Meet Aja Wentum …
Give us a little information about your background, the two-minute life story.
I was born in Ghana, West Africa. I moved to Oregon to attend high school, then afterward I went back to Ghana for a little bit, and returned to the States for a bit. In 2001, I visited my dad’s little sister in London and ended up staying there until 2004. At the end of 2004, I was kind of fed up with all the fast-paced lifestyle of London — wasting money and going out partying. So I decided to come back to the U.S. I was going back to Oregon and my sister — who lives in Scranton — said “Why are you going back to Oregon? Why don’t you just come visit me?” I didn’t really know anybody in Scranton — I didn’t even know where Scranton was located. She said it’s close to Philadelphia, so I thought I’d give it a shot. At first, I thought, “What, are you serious?” I had the same reaction a lot of people have when they come here from big cities. I lived in big cities my whole life; I’m a total city boy. To come to Scranton was a little bit of culture shock, but it has been really, really good to me. All the things I wanted to do when I came back to the States — get away from that fast-paced life I was in that wasn’t really leading me anywhere — Scranton was the place to do it. It’s quiet and I could focus and do the things I wanted to do. One of the first things I did was start looking for schools, and I saw that the University of Scranton was a good fit for me. I got my undergrad as a nontraditional student, and I ended up finishing in three years with three concentrations. I studied Communications, Information Technology,and a minor in Economics. I worked for the Times-Tribune for a while, then Harper-Collins for a few years. I went back and got my MBA in marketing and finance to help start up my own business or help run others as well.
What did you do next?
After finishing my MBA, I saw that Scranton was a great place for me to give back to the community. I started looking at ways to get involved and joined a lot of the networking groups in Scranton. I became the treasurer of Power! Scranton, I wanted to give back to help develop Scranton and let people know there are young professionals who aren’t just going to come here and get a great education and leave. I wanted to show you can get a great education and stay.
That turned out to be a great networking opportunity.
That’s how I ran into Chad Clark — one of the Yoga gurus who brought hot yoga to Scranton. I met up with Clark through a friend while doing my MBA, and Clark said he had a book he was coming up with about how to build a hot yoga studio. He asked if I would mind helping in the effort to get the book out and I said of course not. We sat down and talked about the book, where he’d been, the things he was doing and I was blown away. I was blown away to have someone with this much talent here in Scranton — someone who’s worshipped in other communities in America and around the world, and yet he’s in Scranton and nobody knows about him. I decided I wanted to help him not only get the book out, but to help him grow his business. I saw a great product and a great opportunity. I put two and two together and decided this was a way forward. I was partnering with someone who has core competence and skills nobody else does in the hot yoga industry in the whole of North America.
It was lucky to find someone so well regarded.
Clark is a guy who’s traveled all over the world building hot yoga studios. Recently, he was in Iowa building a studio for someone. They had flown in to look at the studios we built on Moosic Street, Scranton, and they loved it. He went out there to build one and now he’s heading to Texas to build another studio. For his book, I did almost everything — from designing, photography, editing, all the things that need to go into the production of a book. It came out really well and people have commented how good the partnership is and how lucky we are on this project. I came to Scranton originally thinking, “This is a crappy town, I don’t even know what I’m doing here with my experience and the things that I’ve done. I’ve lived in cities all my life — what am I doing here?” And then sometime in 2010 or 2011, I woke up and realized the grass is actually green here (if I water my grass). I met with all these people trying to re-route my life here, and it’s really worked out.
Give us a little more information about hot yoga.
Hot yoga is more for the physical body than traditional yoga. It’s great for athletes and for people who have physically challenging problems like chronic back pain or arthritis. If you heat up the room, the heat adds a therapeutic element. When people come in and the room is at a certain temperature, it heats up the body and warms up the joints. People are able to stretch and breathe and exercise to the point where it helps them restructure torn ligaments and muscles. There are a lot of other types of yoga, but hot yoga is more for the physical aspect of it. It’s to help you regain flexibility, help you gain balance. You’re doing breathing postures, balance postures and spinal postures, so it’s strengthening your spine and your core. That’s why the NFL and NBA are pushing athletes to start doing hot yoga. The heat helps, because it helps warm up the body and loosen you up faster and you’re able to push yourself farther than when your body isn’t warmed up. You’re able to do more, and in the end it can help with chronic back pain, chronic arthritis and diabetes. It helps in lots of ways. Our main style is Bikram style — which is different from other styles like Vinyasa. We’re trying to slowly introduce heat into the other styles of yoga as well. They’re not as hot as the Bikram style we practice, which is done in a room at 105 or sometimes up to 108 degrees. One of the things I’m trying to do is introduce heat into Pilates and other things as well, but that’s not going to be heated up to 108 degrees — probably more like 90 degrees for now, so people can warm up. Vinyasa is not as hot as Bikram — it’s only 60 minutes and goes up to 88, maybe 90 degrees.
That sounds like a really unique experience.
The other thing that separates us from many other hot yoga studios in the country — and I say “in the country” because Clark has built maybe 70 to 80 percent of some of the top hot yoga studios in the country — is we don’t use radiant heat. That heat isn’t as good for the body. Clark has a system in which he’s able to combine heat with humidity and the energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Basically, it’s like forced air and the heat is all over the room. It’s not like radiant heat where the heat comes from one panel; it’s multidirectional. The heat isn’t just hitting your body from one direction. In lots of places, the radiant panels are up on top — when you’re standing up, it’s heating up your head and nothing else. When you lay down or change posture, it’s heating up your face, or your foot. The way we have it, the heat is all over your body. You have the right setting of humidity, we normally set it to about 40-45 percent. Then you have the ERV, which brings in fresh air. It takes out the bad air in the room and brings in fresh air. You’re standing in the room, and your whole body is warm — not just one part of your body. It’s not sweaty, it’s breathable, it’s amazing — you should come try it!
What’s it like for a beginner, even if you’re out of shape?
It is so welcoming. Most of our classes are not upper level classes. We call it ability-centric. Anybody can just walk in and take a class. The instructors are going to pay as much attention as necessary to you, and coach you and reposition you. Yoga is all about positioning, the posture and how you do it. If you’re supposed to do a Standing Bull, there’s a way you’re supposed to stand — they all have different effects. The Standing Bull helps with your back and your spinal cord. For instance, if you’re supposed to have part of your body facing forward and you’re facing to the right, or up, or down, they will adjust you to make sure you have the right posture. Nobody forces you. One of the things I tell everybody when they come in is not to have any fears — just focus on yourself and what you’re able to do. Don’t worry about the rest. Yoga will meet you at whatever level you are. If you can’t even touch your toes, it’s OK! Just do what you can do — touch your knees, just do it. The next time you come into class, you’ll be surprised. You’ll go from touching your knees to touching your shins, then your toes.
I had never done yoga until I met Clark. I had back problems from playing basketball. I had problems driving long distance and I used to drive 15 hours to Atlanta with no problem. I got to the point where I couldn’t drive two hours to Philadelphia. I started practicing yoga more seriously, and I’m not kidding, my back problems went away. I was seeing people doing this crazy stuff and I couldn’t even touch my toes. But I built up the courage, went in and did what I could. In two or three weeks, I had made amazing progression and change in my postures, and my back pain started to go away — now it’s gone! It helps people with sciatic nerve problems, all kinds of things. Hot yoga will help you repair a lot of damage you’ve done to your body. Yoga is not going to judge you.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just come try Electric City Hot Yoga! We have Clark — someone who’s one of the most sought-after instructors in the whole country. He’s been featured in articles in the New York Times, the New York Post, engineering journals, and things like that about his knowledge. He has such an amazing amount of knowledge about yoga, designing studios and creating a great space. The technology is just amazing. We try to give back to the community as well. We offer free passes now and then, sometimes we’ll give people trials, we just want people to see the benefit and to create a healthy culture here in Scranton. When people are healthy, that goes into the economy and the community as well. It’s a cycle, and the better people feel the more they want to come in and practice. It uplifts everybody.
— tucker hottes
Local act SUZE release new album Sounds from Thursday Evening
Somewhere deep within the bowels of a warehouse in Pittston — surrounded by floral supplies: foam, fake flowers, accents, vases, and assorted ephemera — lead singer and guitarist Adam McKinley of SUZE turns to make a point. “I’m really glad we’ve got a chance to talk to everyone in the band. Usually I feel like I’m just talking and they never get a chance to chime in.” A minute or two and a few twists and turns past even more endless rows of merchandise and it becomes clear why it’s important to hear from the rest of the guys. It’s hard to keep up with the pace of jabs and in-jokes at times, but eventually photographer Keith Perks corrals the five-piece band together for long enough to snap a few shots. Later, they undergo some serious discussion of cigarette-smoking in front of a “No Smoking” sign before judiciously heaping some flak on drummer Kevin Gallagher for breaking the previously agreed-upon “cigs-in-mouths” composition for the photo.
While it’s obvious these guys like to enjoy themselves and joke around, things turn way more serious when music comes up. SUZE began in 2007 when friends Adam McKinley and Brandin Shaffern (bass) started jamming with mutual friend Chris Bednar. One night, after filling in a quick set at a benefit show, Shaffern and McKinley were at a bar. McKinley began to talk about forming a band. As it turned out, Gallagher was in the same bar. “I was looking to jam with people, and I happened to be sitting a couple stools down from Adam,” he says. “Our mutual friend — Alan Peterson — heard McKinley talking about how he needed a drummer, so he just said ‘talk to this guy.’” A few beers later, and things began to develop from there.
“Chris and his wife were having a baby, so he decided he needed to spend more time with family,” says McKinley. “We only had a couple of original songs at that point, and in the fall of 2009 we added Adam Gabriel on lead guitar.” Like many of the SUZE stories, it was a pretty casual introduction: more mutual friends, and quick compatibility. “It was a very rigid audition,” Gabriel says with a laugh. “I think I just played and we said ‘alright!’”
The next addition to the band’s history starts when a series of laughter erupts over Gabriel breaking an ankle on his birthday. “We had a show the very next night, and obviously he couldn’t play,” recalls McKinley. “I had known Angelo [Miraglia] for about 15 years, and at the time I didn’t play any lead guitar parts. It would have been a pretty boring show without any kind of lead, so I asked him to just fill in and play some keyboard solos over the songs.”
With a full five-piece lineup, SUZE finally took its modern incarnation. “Once those two guys joined, the whole dynamic changed for the better,” says Shaffern.
“Well, that’s a matter of opinion, but…” jokes Gabriel. Even a ‘serious’ discussion with these guys is punctuated by the occasional ribbing.
With the full lineup, though, SUZE began to transition from mostly cover songs to original material. “We played a lot of covers,” says Shaffern, “but a lot of it was stuff people don’t really know – more or less jam bands, but not the obvious choices.” McKinley adds, “Like I always said, if you’re going to cover Cream, don’t cover ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ you know? Do something else, that’s the way we looked at it. We’ve done an eclectic mix; we’ve even covered Wu-Tang Clan before.”
What started as a few friends jamming and playing an odd show or two had turned into something more. The band’s first album, When the World is Not Enough, resulted from the natural progression as SUZE developed more original material. “We didn’t even have a full album’s worth of material when we started recording,” says Gabriel. SUZE entered McCrindle Building Recording Studios with the intention of laying down tracks while writing new material.
“We weren’t experienced at that point, we thought ‘oh, five songs will take us forever,’” says McKinley. “We weren’t going in very often to record, so we figured we’d have enough time.” That time turned into two years of sporadic recording sessions, during which the band continued to write more material. From there it was a matter of promoting and playing more shows.
“Just having an album, something we could give to people, opened up some doors,” says Gallagher. “That’s when we started developing a fanbase. Before that it was like, ‘Hey, you guys rock! Where can we get more?’ and we had to say, ‘Uh, I dunno, look us up on MySpace or something I guess…’” Naturally, there’s a pause for laughter and reflection on old technology.
“One of our goals was go get into the River Street Jazz Cafe,” says Shaffern. “It’s one of the essential places to play original music around here, especially for our style.” The earlier days of playing mostly covers paid off when fans stuck around as the band transitioned to original music. At first, a few original songs weren’t enough to fill an entire setlist, but gradually the tide turned as the band’s output increased with additional contributions to the writing.
“Over time, we shed away a lot of covers and replaced them with more writing,” says Gallagher. “Adam [McKinley] does most of the writing, but we now have additional contribution, so it adds some variety. For example [Miraglia’s] songs have a much different structure from [McKinley’s]. And [Gabriel’s] songs are much different from either of those.” Immediately, everyone chimes in to make one point definite: writing in this band is a democracy. Everything is up for discussion, and while individual passions flare, ultimately the best sound wins out.
The conversation begins to border on the too-serious side, but comes to a grinding halt when too many “Adams” are thrown around. Reassurances are issued that editors are magical, and things continue.
The short story says McKinley writes lyrics and does much of the arrangement. Members of the band generate ideas — Miraglia might present a series of sketches, Gabriel may throw some riffs together, Shaffern comes up with a bassline, Gallagher gets an idea for a drum fill — and SUZE comes together enjoying making music.
Things have moved much more quickly for SUZE since the first album was released. With an increase of creative output during the lengthy recording process, it was less than a year before they began work on Sounds from Thursday Evening. For the second album, entering the studio was much more streamlined. “We learned a lot from the first album, how to work in the studio,” says Shaffern. “We got organized. We got focused.”
McKinley adds, “The first time – you go into the studio, you’re like 26 years old and you don’t really know anything, and then all of a sudden you’re in this professional environment. We had to write stuff on the fly, coming up with new arrangements. Honestly, before that we hadn’t even heard ourselves on a recording. You hear everything, hear yourself breathe.”
Miraglia pipes up, “You can even hear the drummer singing along…” and again the guys detour for a moment into some good-natured ball-busting. At some point, Shaffern describes the process as “A Rush” and the rest insist on that as the headline for the story.
The latest recording experience also gave SUZE the opportunity to add another dimension with the studio work of Carl Krupa adding saxophone and flute parts to six the tracks. “When the horns get involved, the whole mood of the song changes, and that was something of an epiphany for some of them. We didn’t even really know what we wanted, and he would just create great ideas on the fly,” says McKinley. While SUZE won’t be adding a regular woodwind instrumentalist to the lineup, Krupa will appear with the band for the album release show.
“All I have to say,” says Miraglia, “is that the flute on [album-closer] ‘Fall of the King’ – it transforms the whole song. It’s like magic.”
SUZE has continued to build a portfolio of material, but there aren’t immediate plans to rush back into the studio. “Last time there were a few songs here and there that we could have worked into the album, but they weren’t quite ready,” says Gallagher. “Same thing this time, they might not have fit, but with some development they can work for the future, it’s nice to have them in your pocket.”
After the band’s album release show at the River St. Jazz Cafe Friday, they’ll play a mirror show at Sarah Street Grill in Stroudsburg, which the band refers to as a “home away from home.” Other notable upcoming appearances an in-store release at Gallery of Sound on March 12 and a set on PA Live on March 24. McKinley rattles off a quick list of shows that will take SUZE throughout the region and as far south as Maryland. “We have a lot of stuff lined up, a lot of dates still to be announced, so we’ve got a full plate, and get the music in front of more people,” he says.
“As a product, this album is just leaps and bounds beyond our first one,” adds Gilbert. “We really just took it to the next level. We’ve got a mix of some new venues, some places we’ve played for a while, so the future is looking good.”
The excitement of opening a new chapter flows through this group, and it’s easy to share the enthusiasm – these guys are having a blast, and making music they love.
“We’re putting out music that we want to put out,” says Shaffern. “Some people may not like it, and that’s fine. We’re not targeting any sort of specific fanbase.”
“I think we’re eclectic when it comes to that,” says Gilbert. “We’ll have as many people our age, and people 20 and 30 years older than us getting down, you know? We work really hard at it.”
“We’re not just there to party, we want to put on a good show for people, and show people that we’re serious about this, and not just some party band that’s making extra cash on the weekend,” says McKinley.
There’s a moment of reflection and agreement on this, and it looks like we’re about to close on one of those rare serious notes.
“I would like to add, however,” interjects Miraglia, “that we can party.”
Laughter ensues, and it’s a fine way to sum these guys up.
— tucker hottes
IF YOU GO:
SUZE Sounds from Thursday Evening
album release party.
River Street Jazz Cafe, Plains
Friday, March 7, doors 8 p.m.
$5 at the door. 21 and older.
Grateful Art in The Electric City
We caught up with The Grateful Gallery’s John Warner about his upcoming appearance at The Backyard Ale House, 523 Linden St., Scranton, on Friday, March 7 as part of Susquehanna Breakdown’s Fee Free event. The night will feature selected works from The Grateful Gallery, as well as live music from The Kalob Griffin Band and The Tom Graham and Bill Orner Duo.
Give us a little background on your work.
I work primarily in the music business creating concert posters for bands like The Allman Brothers, Further, Phil Lesh & Friends, moe., Gov’t Mule and Warren Haynes to name a few. I’ve also created artwork for festivals like Lockn’, Gathering of the Vibes and Mountain Jam. In addition to posters, I design T-shirts and other band merchandise. I also work locally with Cabinet and this upcoming festival – the Susquehanna Breakdown.
How did you get involved in the business?
I’m originally from Binghamton, N.Y., not far from this area. As a kid, I was a huge fan of album artwork and it was my objective from a young age to become a professional artist. I started seeing the Grateful Dead, Phish and other jam bands in high school and I fell in love with the scene. I started making fan art back then in the ‘90s, selling my T-shirts in the parking lots at shows. I moved to California in 1990 and followed several Grateful Dead and Phish tours. At the same time, I was developing my design business, working with local bands and clubs. After a while, my art just kind of got noticed, my client list grew and I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. I always prioritized developing good working relationships with the bands and have been designing for some of my clients for five, 10, 15 years now. In addition to artwork, I’ve worked on the business side of the music industry by booking bands, promoting shows and so on. In 2004, I moved to Austin, Texas to focus on developing my graphic design business, and at the same time I started managing a bar and booking shows there. I created the artwork for the shows and did promotion too. In 2007, I moved back to the Northeast and continued developing my design business with some great new clients like Citizen Cope. I met Cabinet in 2008 and booked them at a festival I was producing and promoting — the Hop Bottom Arts and Music Festival — which was in its second year in 2008. We’ve been friends ever since, and I am thrilled to design posters and other artwork for them.
You’re not “just” a full-time artist, then?
Oh, no — I work on the production side too. I work with Bill Orner who is the lead promoter for the Susquehanna Breakdown. I’ve helped with the nuts and bolts of the festival like layout and attractions. I also coordinate vending for a few music festivals.
How did you get involved with Susquehanna Breakdown?
In January 2013, Orner called me up and said “LiveNation is giving us the opportunity to host a festival at Montage Mountain.” He knew I had worked with Mountain Jam, Peach and other festivals and that I had some experience. He wanted to know if I would come on board to give a hand and we’d see what happens. I love Cabinet and it has been really awesome to see their success and growth over the years, so naturally I said “absolutely, anything I can do to help.” Initially, the festival was supposed to be outside by the front entrance to the venue. We had some bad luck with the weather, which turned into good luck, because they moved us all under the big Pavilion tent. I really don’t think it would have been the same if we hadn’t moved it under the Pavilion. It just added such a special vibe to an already great event. It was dumb luck that we wound up underneath the tent, but it totally transformed the look and feel of the whole thing. In the first year, despite bad weather, we put on a show that looked like a legit, real, big event.
Everything went really well, and it was pretty much an automatic decision that day that we were going to do this again. So Orner usually takes care of all the booking, ticketing, promotion and organization there, and I fill in the gap by coordinating food and craft vendors, sponsorships, that kind of stuff. This year the lineup just speaks for itself — it’s fantastic. We really have some great talent this year and we’re really looking forward to it.
It’s great to showcase local talent on a stage that houses giant national acts.
Well, that’s what it’s all about. I’m originally from the region — I love the area. My mom lives in Susquehanna County and there’s just so much local talent around here that I think all too often gets passed over. There’s the proximity between NYC and Philly, so we get overlooked, but I think our region is ready to get put on the map in a big way. I know there are a lot of people in this area who just have no idea that so much great music is in their back yard! The other day, I was checking out the Facebook page for Montage Mountain, and somebody posted “What’s with Montage Mountain booking these festivals with bands nobody’s ever heard of?” This is a good thing! This year’s lineup for Susquehanna Breakdown is amazing year with both local talent and nationally touring artists. I recommend skeptics come up to the show to check it out, because they’ll walk away thinking “wow, these bands are really good!”
It shows the strength of the local scene that we can support a main stage show with local acts.
Well, that’s the thing — last year could have been a huge failure and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It wouldn’t have come back. It gives me a feeling of pride that so many people came out to support Cabinet and the local scene, and the whole thing was a success. This year, I’m really hoping that we get a wider variety of the community to come up — those who aren’t necessarily Cabinet fans, friends and family, but people who just heard about the festival and thought it sounded pretty cool.
What’s going on Friday at The Backyard Alehouse?
A night of music by Susquehanna Breakdown artists The Kalob Griffin Band and Tom Graham, along with a chance to buy festival tickets with no service charge. (Ticket prices are $20 GA and $55 VIP.) I’m going to be there with a gallery of my artwork as part of a sneak preview of the Grateful Gallery concert poster and photography show that I bring to music festivals throughout the summer. I’ll also have some posters from Mike Dubois, another Grateful Gallery artist, and there’s a chance we’ll have a special guest and some other surprises. These gallery shows are a great opportunity to pick up a poster from a favorite band or a show you attended.
What can we look forward to at this year’s Susquehanna Breakdown?
In addition to the music, we also have a great variety of vendors and artisans this year. We have some of the best vendors in the country, like handmade apparel, accessories and artwork from the non profit Eden’s Rose Foundation; organic cotton and bamboo clothing from Hooked Productions; hand-painted ornaments made from recycled Christmas trees from our local favorite S.A.W. Family Creations; and Uncle John’s Outfitters, which is my own family business. We also have a couple of the best food vendors joining us — the Gouda Boys have an out-of-this-world menu and we are happy to have our local favorites Shady Grove Wraps. We’ve got some new stuff coming in like a children’s drum workshop from Everyone’s Drumming. There’s going to be something for everyone. It gives me an enormous amount of pride to be able to help bring this kind of event into my backyard.
— tucker hottes