Nick Pulizzi has been a musician for as long as he can remember and the recent COVID-19 shutdowns forced the guitarist and vocalist to more intimately connect with his creative side.
Because his band, Mad River Junction, was forced to stay home instead of scheduling gigs in Rome, Utica, Syracuse and the surrounding area, his bass player and friend Greg Owens built a recording studio right in the basement of his home. And that is where Mad River Junction gathered to record and produce their latest album, “Phoenix Rising.”
“This experience was about finding a way to make a positive mark during a really dark time with the COVID-19 pandemic — to create something cool and be able to collaborate with other artists,” Pulizzi said.
Mad River Junction recorded, produced and mastered its first album, which is now available on all streaming platforms, such as Pandora, Napster and Spotify, and can be found for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.com.
“We are all local guys, most of us are from Rome, and the album is a great testament to Rome’s thriving music scene,” said the guitarist/vocalist.
While this is the band’s first album together, Pulizzi said he and Owens, who have performed with each other in different bands for more than two decades, have about nine recordings under their belts. Mad River Junction has been performing together for about six years.
All the members have “day jobs,” and while music is their hobby, it’s also a great passion. Pulizzi is the director of special eEducation for Camden Central School, and has worked in education for 26 years.
“I’ve been a musician as long as I can remember — it’s the only kind of hobby I’ve ever had,” Pulizzi said. “I don’t golf — my ‘thing’ has always been music. I played in bands my whole life, and this band has been together about six years. The bass player and I have been playing together over 20 years.”
He saId, “We’re all dads and working guys, and it’s super fun for us — we take it as seriously as a bunch of working guys can take it. We play covers and out in bars, but the writing and recording of music is what’s really fun for us. In my day job I’m director of special education, and I’m passionate about serving the community and taking good care of our students.”
But Pulizzi remembers those awkward teenage years, when youths are still trying to find themselves. He recalled that he was about 13 when his music teacher at Staley Junior High School first introduced him to the guitar.
“I was a teenager and didn’t know what I was into, and remember the music teacher doing a guitar unit in music class. I picked it up, and he showed us” different chords, Pulizzi remembered. “It was the one thing I could do right away, and it turned out it was my ‘thing’ — not as a profession, but certainly as a life-long hobby.”
From that point on Pulizzi said he got into all kinds of music over the years.
“I studied and devoured music of all genres my whole life,” he saId. “I’m also a singer, so the whole thing kind of came together.”
Growing up in the 1980s, rockers like the late guitar legend Eddie Van Halen, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix were great influences on Pulizzi’s style and sound. He’s a fan of anything from blues to “old school” Rock N’ Roll, that includes “hair bands” like Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Twisted Sister.
To sum up Mad River Junction’s sound, “We’re like old-time Rock N’ Roll but really catchy, like ZZ Top meets Bon Jovi and The (Rolling) Stones,” said Pulizzi. “And we enjoy playing that type of music unapologetically.”
Pulizzi also appreciates being a “Rock N’ Roll dad.” While his two grown sons may have found their father’s hobby “ridiculous” at some point while growing up, Pulizzi said they now respect him for being a creative soul.
“My grown sons think it’s cool that I do something a little unconventional and creative, and that I’m still following my own path, even though I’m still living the traditional 9-to-5 life,” he said. “Now I’m trying to chase my 3-year-old daughter down in the recording studio.”
It was during the COVID shutdowns that everything went silent, including the music. For most musicians, that meant their livelihood or hobbies were halted. But instead of “going dark,” Mad River Junction members decided they would stay connected through their music.
“The most interesting thing during the lockdown was that we really found ourselves like every other band — a man without a country,” said Pulizzi. “So we decided to finish those songs I had been working on, get into the studio and make a record. It was the silver lining of COVID. It forced us to stop playing shows, but it gave us time to focus on the art.”
And with today’s technology, musicians can produce and master their own recordings in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, rather than paying high rental fees for studios. But Pulizzi admitted it’s no cheap task.
“What’s cool about 2021 is that you can record a legitimate album in your basement. It’s not cheap, but the tech is that good today,” he said. “We built a studio in our bass player’s basement, and he’s (Owens) a genius when it comes to engineering, mixing and mastering.”
Mad River Junction is pressing a limited number of “Phoenix Rising” CDs, and songs became available for listening or download on all major streaming platforms starting Sept. 30.
And since both grew up and attended middle school together, Pulizzi said he’s proud that Roman Mark Montalbano has also been a huge part of his latest musical release — designing the bold phoenix album cover.
“Mark is heard in references to all things Rome, but what a lot of people don’t know is that he’s this incredible, genius artist, so he was the first person I thought of for coming up with an album cover,” Pulizzi said of his friend. “I gave him some basic ideas, and we collaborated for months. What he came up with is nothing short of breathtaking.”
As for the excitement surrounding the release of Mad River Junction’s first album, Pulizzi said it’s most definitely the “silver lining” of a troubling time.