Countless area bands have been conceived, lived and disappeared since former local impresario Mal Thursday (pictured above, second from right, with The Malarians, 1985)—also known, equally enigmatically, as J.M. Dobies—last stepped off an area stage.
Thursday’s heyday was concurrent with a very active time in local music lore. Any night in the ’90s could find him all over Northampton, somehow simultaneously booking shows at the Baystate Hotel, leading a band of garage rockers through a rousing rendition of The Standell’s “Dirty Water,” and shaking hands with someone on a deal to release a 7-inch single on his own Chunk Records.
After vanishing from the scene under hazy circumstances and leaving music altogether, Thursday is currently in the midst of a prodigal Massachusetts reunion run, playing shows with two of his former Valley bands, The Malarians and The Cheetahs. He checked in by phone from his current home in Austin, Texas to talk about his bands, his disappearance, and his spate of impending area gigs.
Mal Thursday’s first band, The Malarians, was born in 1984 and lasted until 1990. The group was a rave-up garage band known for rollicking live shows and matching black turtlenecks.
The group produced three releases, In the Cool Room (1986), Know (1988), and Finished in this Town (1990), and reached a respectable level of success in their day, receiving good airplay and cracking the CMJ Top 20.
Thursday transitioned to a new project, The Cheetahs, following the breakup of the Malarians. They released a holiday single in 1992, followed up in 1993 by a split 7-inch with Angry Johnny, featuring the band’s version of the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” with guest vocals—and pig squeals—from Angry Johnny himself.
Around this time, Thursday was cranking out releases on his own Chunk Records, an imprint that quickly became known for releasing solid singles by national acts and for producing some of the area’s finest recordings before or since. His roster included seminal acts like Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, DMZ, the Lyres, New Radiant Storm King, Scud Mountain Boys, and Silver Jews.
All the while, he was booking gigs around town, producing rock videos, and writing for publications like V Mag and the Boston Phoenix.
Then things fell apart.
“In the late ’90s, I sort of crashed and burned like a Shakespearean tragic-comic figure,” Thursday recalls. “God, you know, I left my entire back catalogue—all the Chunk Records backstock—I left that at Frank Padellaro’s and then he moved out and it got swiped by the cleaning crew and turned up at the Hadley Flea Market and on eBay, and I ended up having to buy a bunch of my stuff back, just to have one copy of the DMZ record or whatever. I lost all those records. I had a Vox [organ], three Farfisas—it was a vintage organ holocaust, I tell you. And I have no one to blame but myself. I really fucking blew it in some regards, you know?”
Thursday became disillusioned with rock, and a promising job elsewhere in the Commonwealth fell through. He says his behavior and decision-making were going south in a hurry.
“Well, you know, I burned my bridges,” he says. “I was like, ‘Shoot, I’m finished in this town.’ And I burned some bridges—I did some uncharacteristic things and was like, ‘Shit, I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve stayed too long at the dance,’ you know?”
Thursday unsuccessfully tried to find work in New York before retreating to a condo his sister owned in Florida. Feeling the music itch, he launched a radio show, Florida Rocks Again!, chronicling the state’s music history from ’50s R&B to garage to obscure rockabilly singles.
“The show is still online and still gets thousands of downloads,” Thursday says. “I wanted to get it syndicated, but I found commercial radio to be a rigidly formatted, vast wasteland.”
But getting back into music rejuvenated Thursday, who was further pulled out of his funk by the news that he was to become a father for the first time.
Thursday and family relocated to Austin, Texas. He took a corporate job with Microsoft before getting laid off last summer.
“It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me since I got to Austin, because now I’ve been more able to do a lot of creative stuff,” he says. “Ultimately, I have to go take another corporate gig—COBRA doesn’t last forever. But I’m doing a film column now. I’ve gotten more involved with the film scene, and I’m working for the local minor league team, the Round Rock Express, the triple-A affiliate of the [Houston] Astros.”
And the timing allowed for thoughts of a Malarians reunion to creep into his mind. Thursday says the other members had been pushing for it for years.
“Kent Garber, our original bass player, died in ’94, and it makes it hard to have a reunion. He was a great singer, and was really rock solid—he had his issues, obviously. Then I sort of came around to the idea. I figured it would be fun, and we got the offer to play this Hampshire reunion thing, and I said, ‘If we’re going to do that, there’s going to be no money involved, so we’re going to have to do some paying shows.'”
Adding further fuel to the reunion and journey back to New England is the reissuing of the entirety of the Mal Thursday-related back catalogue.
Over the last year, Malarian Johnny Tomorrow (aka John Lebhar) has been working with the original master recordings, tweaking the sound, making edits and attempting to, in Thursday’s words, bring the recorded quality up to par with the band’s live prowess. Some unreleased material will additionally see the light of day, along with a complete compilation of Cheetahs’ material.
“I hadn’t listened to any of this stuff for years and years,” Thursday says. “And listening to that stuff again, I was like, ‘Hey, this is pretty good.'”
Thursday lined up a slew of reunion shows for a compact time period—a fact not lost on someone who’s been out of the game for awhile.
“Six gigs in 10 days is a lot to ask of someone who hasn’t been on a stage for 10 years,” he says. “But I think I’m up for it. I’ve got to sing more—I can’t scream like I used to.
He’s equally excited to play with both acts, and promises that neither one has lost a step, perhaps even gaining in quality over time thanks to the top-flight musicians surrounding him who have allowed him to focus less on playing keys and more on singing.
“I could just be the village idiot, you know,” he says, “the marionette, the clown up front.”
The lineup for the Malarians is the same as the one that recorded In the Cool Room and Know, with Thursday on vocals, harmonica and organ, Tomorrow on lead guitar and vocals, Bob Medley (Robert Sherwood) on keys, guitar and vocals, and drummer Lime Ricky (Eric Payne). Les LeBarge—playing pseudonymously as Les Fillin—plays bass in place of the departed Garber (Slater Awn).
Mal Thursday & the Cheetahs return with their 13th lineup, featuring drummer Paul Pelis, bassist Dave Trenholm, and Frank Padellaro and Bob Medley on guitar and vocals.
Thursday has jokingly dubbed his return trip The Route 9 Tour, as the group’s travels will take them from Amherst to Northampton to Worcester to Boston.
Is he nervous about not only remounting local stages but returning to a place where so many bridges were burned?
“It’s a mix of anticipation and dread,” he says. “I know that I can perform. I’m hoping my voice holds out. I’m thinking that time heals all wounds, so anybody that I told to fuck off or was a jerk to, you know, will have forgiven and forgotten, or they just won’t go to the show and still think I’m an asshole.”
The Malarians and special guests The Immolators play Sierra Grille in Northampton Thursday, June 10. For additional shows and information, visit http://www.jmdobies.com.