Dennis Drew was never looking for fame and fortune. He just wanted to keep playing music and having fun.
"It was a very exciting time, and all we were doing was going around to college towns and having fun playing our music," said Drew, who along with friend and band member Steve Gustafson created 10,000 Maniacs in Jamestown, Chautauqua County, in 1981. "Eighteen was the drinking age back then, and we'd call a college radio station and would ask them where we should play.
"We'd play music, and then sleep on the floor. One thing just always led to another and it snowballed. We kept on getting bigger and bigger crowds listening to us."
Drew, Gustafson, vocalist Mary Ramsey and the 10,000 Maniacs return to the Capital Region for the second time in three years Saturday night at 8 at the Cohoes Music Hall.
With Natalie Merchant doing the lead vocals, 10,000 Maniacs was one of the biggest "alternative rock" groups of the 1980s, and they have continued to tour every year since with the exception of a three-year break in 2000 following the death of their guitar player, Rob Buck. Merchant left the group in 1993 and was replaced by Ramsey, who is celebrating her 25th year as a band member.
"We did between 57, 58 shows last year, which was the most we've done in a long time," said Drew, the group's keyboard player. "Between 40 and 50 would be a bit more manageable. But we all get along pretty well, and we've been at it non-stop except when our guitar player died. That put a damper on things, and it was a very difficult, sad time. But Steve started pushing us to make a new record, and things started happening again."
The group enjoyed its most significant success between 1987 and 1993 when it released four albums, including "In My Tribe" in 1987.
Learning along the way
Drew and Gustafson were students at Jamestown Community College and had been working at the college's radio station when Merchant walked into their office in 1980.
"She was probably 16 and she walked in and wanted us to play some of her music," remembered Drew. "We weren't even really musicians back then, but it was the punk rock days so we put a band together and learned how to make some noise. We kind of learned along the way and got better and better."
Drew and Gustafson also went to high school together and were more into the drama club than they were popular music.
"I played the sheriff in 'Fiddler on the Roof,' and Steve and I were both in this musical production of 'M*A*S*H,' and I played Hawkeye and he was Trapper John," Drew said. "My parents had bought a piano for my sister and given her lessons, and she showed me a few things. But mostly I was dabbling in musical theater. Also did 'Pajama Game.' Then we got into the college radio station as DJs and that's what really started us on this other path of playing music."
"In My Tribe" was included in "Rolling Stone's" 100 Best Albums of the Eighties, and, in 1993 with Ramsey in the fold, they produced "Unplugged" on MTV. That release would go on to sell more than a million copies. This year also marked the 35th anniversary of their first full-length recording, "Secrets of the I Ching," which put them on the worldwide stage.
"We put ourselves in enough places at enough times, and finally we were in the right place at the right time," said Drew, referring to a concert in Athens, Georgia. "That's where we met R.E.M.; they helped us get Frank Reilly as our agent and he promised to get us gigs."
Drew says the group has fond memories of the Cohoes Music Hall and is looking forward to playing there again.
"There's not a bad seat in the place, and we remember it as a great, old house," he said. "Those kind of smaller places are fine with us. We'll probably start out with some acoustic stuff, and then turn it up and go electric, and rock out the house during the second half. It will be really exciting, and we'll play music from every record we ever made."
Along witih Drew, Gustafson and Ramsey, band members include Jeff Erickson and John Lombardo on guitar and Jerome Augustyniak on drums.
WHERE: Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen St., Cohoes
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $55-$35
MORE INFO: Visit www.cohoesmusichall.org, or call (518) 953-0630