Friday, April 13, 2001
Cropduster’s drunk with joy reaping its awards
By Robert Hicks

Northern New Jersey’s Cropduster is attracting a lot of attention for its sophomore release, “Drunk Uncle,” which finds the alt-rock quartet segueing with ease from crunchy power pop and twangy country rock to its distorted guitar sound-effects and distinctive goofball eccentricity.

Although the disc currently sits at No. 29, having peaked at No. 22, on the College Music Journal charts, the band is still just beginning to reach out beyond New Jersey and the northeast to find its growing audience.

Those people who have a taste for the Rolling Stones, Who, Ween and Pavement should all find something to like about Cropduster, which performs Wednesday at the Crocodile Rock Café in Allentown for a WMUH benefit show. Future area shows include double-bill nights with Spoon at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J. on May 2 and at Khyber Pass in Philadelphia on May 4.

Cropduster, named after imagery in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” is the brainchild of songwriters Marc Maurizi, 29, (guitar) and Tom Gerke who are joined by bassist Lee Estes and drummer Scott Kopitskie.

“I approached the songwriting from a chorus-first theory,” says Maurizi. “I didn’t do much of that on our first CD. The choruses were very diffuse. Usually, they didn’t come until the end of the song - if they came at all on our first record. I think it’s just a natural progression as a songwriter.”

The new disc includes nine new songs, featuring “Nothin’s Gonna Change,” which won the 2000 Musician’s Atlas Independent Music Award for “Best Rock Act.” The celebrity panel of judges included Pat DiNizio, Aimee Mann, and Ben Folds.

Maurizi and Gerke wrote the core group of songs just before going to record in Weehawken, N.J., but other songs date back from a few years ago. The idea for the song “Milkman” came from a dream Maurizi had about a cast of characters including a milkman, a stewardess and a policeman. The song “Indestructo,” the groups show starter that borders on punk and has a guitar riff like the “Batman” theme, is a tune about the group’s touring van.

Maurizi took a bittersweet view of the world on the award-winning song “Nothin’s Gonna Change.”

Cropduster debuted in the mid1990’s at the Melody Bar in New Brunswick, N.J., after Maurizi and Gerke formed as a songwriting team. Pete Novembre was the original bassist and their second bassist Fred Gurnot appeared on the group’s self-titled debut CD in 1998.
Maurizi and Gerke had a longstanding friendship long before teaming up to form Cropduster. Maurizi who hails from Wallington, N.J., first discovered Steinbeck in high school and reread it as a history major his freshman year at Rutgers University. Its imageryof cropdusters flying over the parched field as the people’s last-ditch effort at harvest struck Maurizi as an apt name for the band, but he translates their hardship into a more positive vein for his music for Cropduster.

In his youth, Maurizi met Gerke, who comes from Clifton, N.J., through their parents who were friendly. Both played in local bands including Lost Orgasm, In Blu and Room 11.

“It was more like a drunken, fun thing for us to do,” recalls Maurizi of the early years. “We’d go to Steven’s in Hoboken and play a spring festival. It was all sort of off-the-cuff.”

Maurizi played bass in many of these groups and didn’t switch to guitar until he began writing songs at age 24 while living in the Highland Park section of New Brunswick.

For two years he honed his writing skills before forming Cropduster initally as a duo with Gerke. At that time, they didn’t perform live, concentrating instead on recording demos of their songs. They eventually added drummer Scott Kopitskie and sit-in bassist Pete Novembre in August 1997 and began performing at local clubs in New Jersey.

A lot of bands have factored into Cropduster’s eclectic music.

“I’d say the middle period of the Rolling Stones from ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ to Sticky Fingers has been a huge influence on me,” says Maurizi. “The Velvet Underground, Ween, early Who, Pavement, the Beatles and the Flaming Lips. That’s just a handful of them.” Today, Maurizi and Gerke share a house in Hackensack, N.J. Estes, who is engaged to marry Maurizi’s sister lives in West Orange and Kopitskie resides in Weehawken.

It’s a lot of fun for the housemates to write songs together and Maurizi sees them as aspiring to write songs on par with their idols from ‘60’s to ‘90’s rock.

“I’m trying to come up with something that’s memorable melodically on every song,” says Maurizi. “And I like wordplay where versus and choruses alternate between literal meanings and you can always sink your teeth into and take whichever way you want. That’s also the way I listen to music. I don’t like to be told what’s going on all the time. On the other hand, I like a bit of narritive structure

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