For the last few years my absolute favorite local band to see live has been Waiting on Mongo. As I have been trying to get these guys together to find out what this whole process has been like behind the scenes, I was afforded an invitation to their spot. They live in a good sized house on a compound with an equestrian farm in their backyard, and a pool that hopefully by now is swimmable. By design, it is far enough west of our congested summer suburbs to play at whatever hour they want as loud as they want. TJ gave me the grand tour of the whole place while Anders Carlson, better known as Ders, the man on saxophone, was prepping for his day with some cold brew, of which he generously offered. The living room is scattered with instruments, mic stands, and amplifiers, and it left me to imagine all of the unheard sessions that have transpired there. The place has just enough grime that you hope to see when walking into the compound of one of your favorite bands. The house had character to say the least, and was fully geared for them to make the most out of their music. I can’t thank them enough for opening up their spot for me.
Started by TJ McCarthy, Mike Mongo, Mike Susino, and Matt Mongo, Waiting on Mongo has gone from a good funk band with a solid vibe into a funkified force with a full-blown culture behind them. Conscious or not, they took the temperature of so many people in the area and started playing exactly what we wanted to hear. In more recent times I have been blown away by their progression, with each successive show becoming more cohesive and elevated. The musical relationship of these guys impressed me so much, and usually most of them can’t seem to wipe the smiles off of their faces when they are playing. These guys simply exude the positivity that comes from people who are truly doing what they want to do, and I believe that it is this intangible factor that has people leaving every show feeling so happy that they are sure to annoy anyone who missed it. As I’ve been putting together a podcast highlighting some of the interesting people in our area, these guys were one of the first people to pop into my head. How did they start this up? Who were their influencers? What is up with those Horns!? I had to know…
So…we did a podcast a couple of weeks back, only here is the thing, I got a bit too ambitious and tried to record the interview outside because it was beautiful. As a result, the audio barely came out. Luckily though, it was just enough for me to hear and record most of what was said, but with the volume fully up it the conversation equated to what I would call a glorified whisper. And I wasn’t about to make you all press your headphones up against your head just to second-guess what you were hearing. But honestly, it was a privilege getting invited to come out to there spot and talk about some of this stuff. Enjoy the interview.
MP: So Mike, tell me your story how you got into this whole thing?
Mike Mongo: So yeah, I started playing guitar probably in 7th or 8th grade and I always needed somebody to play with and I had two younger brothers so I kind of encouraged them to pick up some instruments, like my brother Matt who winded up playing the drums, and my other brother who ended up playing bass.
MP: Were your parents into playing music at all, or were you all doing it from scratch?
Mike Mongo: No, they weren’t really. We were all pretty much self-taught; we took lessons for 2-3 months, but that’s pretty much it as far as professional teaching goes. We pretty much just started out covering Led Zeppelin songs and that’s pretty much how I started playing guitar.
(TJ comes back from taking phone call with the pool guy who they had been waiting all day for)
MP: So what about you, TJ, How did this all happen for you?
TJ: We’ve been friends since like, Day 1. We grew up just a couple blocks from each other, and we also worked together at the Norwood in Avon since we were like 14 years old. That’s where it all kind of started, because we would all hang out in the kitchen…Mongo, his brother, and also my older brother…everybody worked there…And we would just jam, you know, Phish, The Dead, The Stones, and we all really got into the same music together. We all were hanging out together, and so we would all go to the same shows together… So then one day we were just messing around and said lets jam, nothing serious, just for fun. And so basically we did that for a while just with Mongo, and Me playing guitar and his brother Matt, who played drum. Then Mike Sesino played guitar, and he lived just over the bridge from us, and we kind of had mutual friends, so then we all went to a Nets vs. Timberwolves game, and we had told him we were playing music and he wanted to play with us. We told him that we were mostly just messing around, but the four of us started playing a good amount after that until I ended up going away to college for a semester…
MP: Oh yeah! Where did you go again?
TJ (laughing): Manhattan College. Got in a little bit of trouble there, I blew it and ruined my swimming career. So that is when we decided to start taking music a bit more seriously..
MP: Could be the best thing that ever happened to you…
TJ: It was definitely for the best, I was burnt out from swimming anyway. But after that we started playing a lot more, but we still weren’t confident enough to play in front of a crowd or anything, you know, we still played in a bedroom for like a year or two.
MP: What was the first time you guys played in front of people? I remember it was like a house party or something that I almost went to.
TJ: Yeah! It was Timmy Brennan’s house, I think like 4 or so years ago. I don’t know exactly but it was a long time ago. It was a great party. I remember there was like this porta-potty there and it was all decked out with flowers and shit. But as we were setting up it started to rain, and Matt Vadas went and put a tarp over all of our equipment which saved the show, and that’s honestly how I met a lot of those guys.
MP: How did the gig go?
TJ: It went well, for us at that time there were a lot of people there. And then coming off of that we really started taking it a bit more serious, Jack Cuttrell got us in to PK Shamrocks, and then from there we started playing out a little more consistently. Until slowly but surely it dawns on you and you’re like “Wow, I actually really like doing this,” And with that we were all on the same page, we all just loved music.
MP: Yeah, I mean, you said that music was pretty much the glue in the first place that led all of you to be friends in the first place.
TJ: Yeah and it really helped that we were all going to the same shows, you know, Phish, My Morning Jacket, we went to Moe.down…
MP: What is Moe.down?
TJ: It’s this band, Moe, I think from Upstate NY…
Mike Mongo: Yeah, in Utica.
TJ: And they had a festival with a bunch of bands like Umphrey’s McGee, Galactic, Hayley Jane & The Primates, and a few others…
Mike Mongo: The band Aqueous.
TJ: Yeah so the band Aqueous, and this is what really inspired us to start taking it all more seriously… So when we went to see them we were all probably 18-20 years old, and we went to their 1pm set during the day and their 5pm set during the evening, and these guys were probably just a couple of years older than us and just killing it. We were like, “ WE WANT TO DO THAT, WHY CANT WE DO THAT!?” And we talked to them after their sets and told them how much we liked their music and ended up forming a friendship with these guys, and even got them to come down to Asbury to play at The Saint and Chicos Jazz Club, and every time they come down now they stay at my house. So we were able to pick their brain a good amount about like how they got to that place.
MP: Was that huge for you guys in your development to be able to get some answers on how to do it?
TJ: Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t so much getting answers as much as being able to be like “We are seriously thinking about pursuing this, what was your game plan in terms of what we can do?” And they were like, “Just practice man, play every day, all day, as much as you can, play as many gigs as you can, that’s it.” And that kind of hit me in the head, being a competitive swimmer all my life being in the pool day in and day out, 3-4 hours a day, and then just transferring that mindset over to the band, just practice, practice, practice.
MP: And you can hear it, and once you hear it you’re like, “Oh shit, its working!”
TJ: Yeah, like it’s starting to click. And we were in a weird phase because for a while, we didn’t know who was playing what. Like, Mongo has only been playing keys for like 2-3 years, and I’ve only really been playing bass for 4 years, and before that we all just played guitar so like what are you going to do with three guitarists? And other than that I’ve always been a big advocate for horns, they just take it to the next level.
MP: I was going to say the first time I saw you guys with the horns was at Langosta Lounge and I walked in going “Holy shit, who is that?” Not knowing you guys were playing that night, and I turned that corner and was blown away that it was you guys, just because they made the sound so much bigger! The horns sound unbelievable, how did you find those guys?
TJ: We found Ders and his brothers when both of our bands played before Splintered Sunlight in 2014, and they played Sultans of Swing, and Ders put his guitar down and grabbed his Sax and ripped this gnarly sax solo and immediately just said to Mongo, “this kid is joining the band,” and afterwards we were all out dancing to Splintered Sunlight all talking about jamming soon. And it didn’t happen right away, but eventually we were able to get everybody together and play.
Ders: Yeah, it took about a month or so for us to get together. You guys (WOM) hit us up with another gig so we got a rehearsal room at Lakehouse.
MP: Was that tricky bringing that into your set or did it gel immediately?
TJ: It’s like anything else, just practice-practice-practice and it all just starts to fill in. I hadn’t taken any lessons or anything until this past year, so I didn’t know anything about scales or what key I was in, I always just went by ear, and that’s pretty much the same for Mongo, but he’s way smarter than me when it comes to that stuff. So when Ders came to practice we were just like, “Dude, do whatever you want,” And the first couple jams we had we were just thinking to ourselves, like, “whoa, this really works.”
Ders: Especially as a horn musician, you don’t always show up to a rehearsal like that, not knowing what you’re getting yourself into, and 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t always end that well. It just clicked. I mean luckily the one thing I knew going into it was that these were some pretty likeminded people and we did really click at the Splintered Sunlight show, so I knew if anything at the very least I would just enjoy my time.
MP: Now before you guys, at least with people our age; there was no live band where you were guaranteed to go to a live show and know generally who was going to be there and what the atmosphere was going to be like. And I feel like in the last year it’s really just grown into it’s own thing, and everyone is aware of it.
TJ: For me, especially when I was 21, seeing live music was tough. I mean locally I would go see Pat Roddy, or Brian Kirk and The Jerks, or Blue Highways, and a bunch of those guys, who are all totally amazing, and they would play all the Bruce stuff and the other Jersey Shore staples, which is still great music, but I remember screaming at Pat Roddy, like “Play James Brown! Play some funk!” but they would always just stick to their own set.
MP: When you guys were going to bars at that stage, were you thinking to yourselves like, “I’m going to be up there playing soon”? Was it by design, or did all of this just come together organically?
TJ: It was definitely organic, like I definitely didn’t think “we are going to be a band,” it was more just like let’s give it a shot and see what we can do. I’ve definitely taken notes from Pat Roddy and a lot of those guys, I mean, he plays for 3 ½ hours straight with no breaks, he knows exactly how to work the crowd, he can perfectly turn up the energy as people start getting some more drinks in them, he’s a pro.
MP: So who are you guys inspired by right now musically?
TJ & Ders (almost in unison): Tower of Power. Forever and always. Total savages from San Francisco.
Ders: And then as for like newer bands, you know, it’s still early in their evolution but Turkuaz is another band who seems like they are on their way to being like the second coming of an iconic band like Tower of Power. If you want to talk about feeling good and having a great time, go to one of their shows.
MP: There is something so earthy about funk that separates it from something like jazz, and don’t get me wrong, funk can get very jazzy, but where jazz makes me think, funk just makes me want to dance and groove, and there is something very universal about it. Like I see all ages at your shows now, all totally getting down to the same thing.
TJ: That’s what is starting to happen, older and older people are starting to come out and they are getting DOWN. And that is the beauty with our group and friends because they totally accept it, and they are excited by it. That’s what music is and what it should be, just people coming together no matter who you are. We have met so many people and made so many friends through this, and everyone is just coming together. We have started to think about this for a while now, and there is more to being good at playing music in order to be successful, like we have people who have come out to every show for the last three years. People like Timmy B, Keala, Jamie & my Avon boys, the Manasquan guys, people from Red Bank, Middletown, they have all come together to form this movement, and they are what is allowing us to all live here together and not have a real job!
MP: That’s the dream!
TJ: It totally is, but don’t get me wrong, it’s been work. Some people look at us like we’re just a bunch of hippies or whatever, and it’s not true, we work our asses off. Our drummer Matt Iatesta plays the drums for at least 5 hours every day. We’re all practicing our own instruments for a few hours everyday. The mentality behind it is play as many gigs as you can, practice as much as you can, like were playing four gigs a week right now, and the idea is just to save all of that money up, and maybe get to go to Puerto Rico or somewhere for a month this winter and hang out and play music out there. If you want to make your dreams happen, you have to literally give it all you got.
A few weeks after we met up, I was fortunate enough to see WOM after the Umphrey’s McGee show. Little did I know some of their mentors from the band Aqueous were in town and I got to see these guys get on stage and totally click, not to mention seeing some of the guitar work from Mike Gangzter. As some of my best friends and I danced our faces off that night, we were just shaking our heads in disbelief that this quality of music was free to us at our own hometown bars. Sadly, an image flashed across my mind that WOM would not be playing these tiny intimate shows forever, and that tours and far larger crowds loomed in their future. But as melancholy crept in at this brief apparition, I quickly let it go and just kept on enjoying the music. I wish these guys nothing but the most success and they deserve nothing less for their energy and downright hard work.
To find out more about upcoming shows and to follow these guys around:
Instagram : @waitingonmongo