In My Tribe — a feast of acoustic rockers centered around singer Natalie Merchant's alluring vocals and a jangly guitar sound — vaulted 10,000 Maniacs from underground status into the Top Forty. And not a moment too soon, either: The third album from the upstate-New York cult band was literally a make-or-break affair.
"There was a lot of pressure on us," says keyboardist and band cofounder Dennis Drew. "If Tribe hadn't been successful, there never would have been another album."
In My Tribe is more than a successful record — it is a poetic, heartfelt message about social concerns such as alcoholism, child abuse and illiteracy.
The Maniacs didn't always have such a passionate sense of purpose. Drew and Steven Gustafson, both college-radio DJs, formed a band called Still Life, which started out covering Joy Division and Gang of Four songs. Merchant joined after wandering into the radio station armed with a pile of LPs she wanted heard on the air. Also recruited were guitarist Rob Buck and John Lombardo, a seasoned composer-guitarist who served as the group's major creative force. Drummer Jerome Augustyniak came on board in 1982, and the group — after changing its name — released an independent EP and album before moving to Elektra Records.
The Maniacs' major-label debut, The Wishing Chair, won fine reviews but met with indifference outside alternative-music circles. Lombardo quit under stormy circumstances, and the anxiety proved to be contagious. After rejecting demos for the band's next album, Elektra insisted the group work with producer Peter Asher, best known for his work with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.
The shotgun marriage worked out in the end, but it was a shaky trip to the altar. The band felt uncomfortable recording in Los Angeles, Asher's home turf. The Maniacs were also unhappy with many of Asher's additions to their sound, including computerized drums. Asher insists he was merely "cajoling" the band into doing its best work.
Elektra suggested doing a familiar song as the lead single, resulting in a cover of Cat Stevens's "Peace Train." The gambit failed to break the group, and the song was later removed from the album after Stevens — a converted Muslim — called for the death of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. The Maniacs ultimately scored with their sadly lilting second single, "Like the Weather." It took two years for In My Tribe to go platinum, but even the band agrees it was better late than never.
"The album gave us a great chance to really coalesce as a band," says Drew. "At that point we had to save our career and make a good record. We fucking buckled up, tightened our belt and did it."