What's in a name? For 10,000 Maniacs -- a Jamestown, N.Y., sextet due in at the 9:30 club tonight -- not much.
"We chose that name as a bit of a lark," explains guitarist John Lombardo. "The name evolved because the group initially was just a conglomeration of local musicians playing together. We chose that name so people would know that we weren't going to be just one of the sort of cover bands that are quite popular where we live."
Unfortunately, the name earned the group a home-town reputation as "punk rockers." To an extent, it's an understandable reaction -- the name 10,000 Maniacs would hardly look out of place alongside the likes of Stukas Over Bedrock or Millions of Dead Cops -- except that the Maniacs don't sound anything like punk rock.
Although Lombardo allows that the band's sound was "a little more aggressive in its early days," the version that turns up on the band's new album, "The Wishing Chair," sits somewhere between the moody melodicism of REM and the traditionalist eclecticism of Britain's Fairport Convention. The songs are hauntingly tuneful and Natalie Merchant's delivery, at once passionate and self-possessed, lends an air of unrequited nostalgia to each melody, as if it had been fashioned from some half-forgotten folk song.
Lombardo is somewhat at a loss to explain just how the Maniacs arrived at their sound. "It evolved over a long period of time," he says. "We always listened to a wide variety of music, and I think that crept into what we were doing. There was a time when it was a little more reggae-sounding; now, it's more folky. But we never really set limitations on what we were going to do, never consciously said, 'Let's drop this, let's become like that.' It's been a very natural evolution."
It also has been something of a commercial burden. Even though the band's individualism has earned it a fervent following among new music fans, it has left the group at odds with the mainstream. Air play, for instance, seems a major problem.
"It's the way radio stations are," Lombardo says. "Unless you figure into one of the formats, you're pretty much relegated to the independent and college radio market. Which is great, I have no criticism of that, but there really are a lot of people in this country who don't live close enough to those stations to be exposed to that variety of music."
Nor does the mega-hit orientation of the record industry offer much in the way of consolation. "Sometimes when we pick up the Billboard charts and read the Top 10 for the week," Lombardo complains, "it gets very depressing to feel that in the record company's eye you are actually competing with people like Lionel Richie and Olivia Newton-John. It's very weird."
Still, the Maniacs believe that what they have to offer is a genuine and valuable alternative to the banality of most modern pop. Lombardo offers Merchant's strikingly literate lyrics as an example.
"There are a lot of people who are bored with the lyrical content of rock," he argues. "There was a time, even just 10 short years ago, when the actual lyrics of a song was quite important. That's changed in the last few years. There are so many songs that are just about grooving or dancing or falling in love that there are segments of the audience who are largely bored."
Lombardo is quick to caution that 10,000 Maniacs isn't claiming to offer actual literature. "It's not poetry. It doesn't really exist as poetry, and I know that Natalie doesn't consider herself a poet. She's writing lyrics for songs. A person doesn't really have to follow our lyrics to enjoy our music. Basically, we're just offering a sort of alternative."
The real challenge lies in getting that alternative across to potential fans. Despite the fact that 10,000 Maniacs has been given a warm reception by the pop music press, Lombardo frets that the average fan is still wary of taking a chance.
"People seem reluctant to listen to new things," he says. "I've never understood that. A lot of people go into record stores, and if they've never heard of a band, they assume it can't be any good because it hasn't crossed their path yet.
"Because of that, we have to get out and appear live. It's strange, but people will pay $5 to see a group that they've never heard of, but they won't risk $8 on an album. Consequently, you have to come across as a live band, at least for the kind of music we play."
And, he adds, "There is an audience for our music. There are a lot of people who feel disaffected, who would like to find some new band they could rally around. But they feel that they are either having to listen to those oldies stations that play Beach Boys and Elton John records endlessly, or that aggressive teen-age-boy music. They don't really know of a middle ground anymore. That's why it's important for groups to maintain integrity, because the audience will find you ultimately."