JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS
We first stumbled upon Justin Dean Thomas on Instagram when hashtagging The Clash. What we found was a photo of a New York City DJ with great style and looks. After googling his name, we then discovered a very talented young musician who fronts a terrific band named The Bowery Riots. The offshoot of this band is Justin’s solo project which we found to be extremely powerful with rock ‘n’ roll songs and haunting ballads. We hung out with Justin off and on over the past year, snapping photos of him at home and on some of his solo gigs, as well as with the Bowery Riots. Justin has a very cool demeanor, reminiscent of a Tom Waits or Chet Baker. When asked about his own personal clothing style, Justin gets a bit shy. But we, as well as many others, are very drawn to his 50’s/80’s Clash style. We think you’ll agree!
PONYBOY: Where were you raised?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: I was raised in Boston, as well as up and down the East Coast. I guess I’m an East Coast mutt.
PONYBOY: What was your upbringing like?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: We moved around a lot. My father was a drummer and my mother a model. My old man did every kind of job in Boston. He worked in garages, taught sky diving, painted houses, and drove cabs. That’s basically how my pop met my mom. He was a cab driver and got her fair three times. And she finally agreed to go out with him. They did all kinds of work, like selling antiques and comics. You name it. We came from a very working class and artistic family, and we were all encouraged to pursue whatever we wanted. So I dropped out of school when I was thirteen years old and hit the road. And that was my schooling. I hitchhiked everywhere, and worked doing everything from construction jobs, landscaping, masonry and restaurant help to some “not so legal” work. Then I ended up in New York City busking in the subways.
PONYBOY: At what age did you start getting into music?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: I started getting into music from when I was a very young child. I never remember not knowing what I wanted to do, or not feeling connected to music as a way of life. My parents’ friend, Nassir, bought me a little Willie Nelson guitar when I was about five years old. That was a very big moment on my timeline. And my mom was somewhat of a musicolgist. She never sang or played any instruments, but would talk anything ranging from albums, producers, tours, as well as all of the little nuances about the world of music that made it romantic to me. She saw that I had a desire to write and a thirst for the history of music and the culture that surrounded it. And she always bought me good music books and got me into great albums.
I’m not too much into contemporary music, and have never quite related to a lot of things that are out there right now. I’ve always felt that there was a musical renaissance that occured in the last seventy years, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of music that has been proliferated in that stretch. Seventy percent of all vinyl and recorded music has not been converted to digital formats. That’s a lot of music that no one has ever listened to. That’s not to say nothing good is coming out right now, or that I’m one of those guys that says he only likes old shit. But, a lot of music right now doesn’t make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And that’s all I have to say about that.
PONYBOY: What type of music are you most passionate about?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: I like Nigerian rock like Amanar, zydeco, jazz, garage, folk, country music, Jamaican soul, blue beat, Northern Soul, psych, and rock ‘n’ roll.
PONYBOY: Who are your favorite musical artists?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: I don’t really have favorites. I have been listening to a lot of Numero Group compilations. I just love that label. I do really like Blind Willie McTell, The Louvin Brothers, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Bo Diddley, Jonathan Richman, Roy Buchanan, MC5, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Dale Hawkins, Hasil Adkins, Dion, Chet Baker, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Big Star, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, Irma Thomas, Del Shannon, The Beach Boys, Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, and Roger Miller. I could keep going.
PONYBOY: How did The Bowery Riots form?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: I was hanging outside of La Esquina with my guitar case and a guy walked up to me and said “You got a guitar in there?” I said, “No, it’s a case full of hammers.” That was TJ Rosenthal. He started laughing and I immediately loved his ability to laugh at himself. He was earnest and excited about music in general. And we got into talking about The Kinks and punk rock and music in general, like a bunch of kids reading comics in a tent with a flashlight. We really hit it off and shared a lot of the same interests. We exchanged songs we were working on. And shortly after that first meeting, we just hung out all the time. That’s pretty much what most of being in a band is all about–working well together and being able to hang out and be around the other person. We hung around the neighborhood, going from bench to bench talking about music, history and the neighborhood. That’s where we predicated the idea of our band, The Bowery.
Tracing our lineage back to Ellis Island and TJ’s great great grandfather, who was a bank robber that knocked off a few joints in the area, we took our name from an 18th century gang called “The Bowery Boys” and the Astor Riot of 1849. It’s an amalgam of those two things. It wasn’t long ago that John Gotti ran his social club on Elizabeth street and The Bowery was home to some of the grittiest life in New York City. We aren’t doing anything that resembles that, but we’re making our own imprint of our era, as well as knowing the history of our neighborhood and family lineage. We’re extremely cognizant of what came before us. This neighborhood has seen so many changes and all walks of life–everything from William Burroughs and Jean Michel Basquiat to The Beastie Boys and Madonna–living in the same building a couple blocks down. Martin Scorcese grew up here, and mobster Joe Gallo was shot at Umbertos Clam House. There are now a lot of boutiques, as well as other yuppie shit springing up, that I can’t really relate to. But TJ and I have pockets in this neighborhood that nobody knows about, and we still know the ghosts of eras past that walk around here.
We had a mutual friend in common with Warren Stubbs, who eventually became our drummer. It’s hard to find people that fit your energy and work style, but Warren is one of the best musicians and consummate professionals that I’ve ever met. We share the same music background and style. He also adds his English wit and flare to our otherwise overt Americana. I rarely ever have to tell him anything when we are working on tunes. He just knows. The three of us work really well together. That’s a really hard dynamic to come by in any field.
PONYBOY: Tell us about your solo project as a musician.
JUSTN DEAN THOMAS: The solo stuff started about two years ago. I’ve always been a singer/songwriter with a guitar that played in that style, but I pushed it off to the side when we started The Bowery Riots. The solo stuff allows me to get back to that, and basically strip the music down. It’s really just a bit more personal. I’ve always been a poet and a writer, and enjoyed just grabbing a guitar and making it about the lyrics and melody.
I started making demos on my Tascam cassette recorder, then converting the music and posting it on SoundCloud with no fanfare or real promotion. Basically, I was just making songs that I would come up with (mostly in one take) and then posting them right after. A few people responded to it, and shortly after Pete Ferraro from East Village Radio took stock, and asked me to play one of my shitty demos on air. He was a big proponent of the solo work and also arranged some really great shows for me to play off the bat. It made me take this bedroom project more seriously and fast track it to having a backing band, thus making it an actual thing. Dave Ross jumped on to play guitar, while Brandon Collins joined in to play drums. I was again lucky enough to have such excellent musicians and really great guys play with me. Dave is a guitar virtuoso and Brandon just has such a tasteful and soulful way of playing that I couldn’t ask for better guys for the job. They know their shit, and it’s fun to hit the road with both of them. Recently someone dug my single “Standing In The Door” and asked to put it in a James Franco film, “The Color Of Time.”
Also, I recently met Jim Jarmusch. He, too, is a staple of this neighborhood. And I’d always see him walking on the streets. One day we bumped into each other and we started talking music. He asked about what I play and I told him I was making stuff on a Tascam cassette player. He freaked out and said he records on a 414 as well. We exchanged information and he asked me to make him a tape of my EP. A few days later, I gave it to him and he loved it. That was a big moment for me as I grew up watching Down By Law and Mystery Train on repeat.
PONYBOY: You’re also a DJ. Where do you spin and what type of music?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: I spin all over the city and do events here and there. My favorite shit to spin is old reggae, as well as punk rock and soul. Djing allows you to see how people react to music in a social setting. It’s an invaluable experience.
PONYBOY: What projects are in store for you with The Bowery Riots, as well as your solo act?
JUSTIN DEAN THOMAS: The Bowery Riots are releasing a new single with an EP on vinyl to follow. We are playing The Mondrian Soho Friday Feb. 13th at 9:30pm, as well as Mercury Lounge on February 18th at 10pm. And I’ll be self funding and recording my solo EP in Memphis at Ardent Studios sometime in the spring.