Saturated with unforgiving stretches of highway, reticent railroad men, moonlight murder scenes and girls whose peepers double as puddles of bourbon, TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb’s songs read like heavy-lidded book reports on America the Roughshod, researched along the swathes of asphalt connecting tonight’s bar to tomorrow afternoon’s watering hole. The words are often gloomy, sometimes doomy and always not quite sober, the perfect soundtrack for polishing off a shot or butting out a hand-rolled cigarette.
How, then, does this band manage to keep us dancing?
Dan Bruskewicz, who used that Strangelove-ian moniker for solo performances prior to draping it over this rollicking foursome, credits the synergy between his scribblings and the tireless time signatures that back them to drummer Dan Martino. On Easter Sunday, 2008, the not-primarily-performer friends — Bruskewicz IDs himself as a writer first, while Martino is a graphic designer — decided to jam.
“We were always talking about what we might sound like together,” says Bruskewicz, who plays acoustic guitar and harmonica. “All my shit was very folky, where all of his shit was very punk rock.”
Bruskewicz’s lyrics, heavy with road-warrior imagery while maintaining a certain man-of-letters air, instantly melded with Martino’s impassioned percussion. “My songs are dark,” says the Mangum and Dylan devotee. “But the first song we played, [Martino] just added fun to it, in a word. That was the day I realized that it could be something people really like.”
Four years, a few lineup changes and countless rep-bolstering gigs later, people do really like TJ Kong, if the early noise surrounding Manufacturing Joy is even half-accurate. Distilling the road-tested quartet’s abilities and cutting them with strings and vocals provided by a network of friends, the band’s second self-released full-length is a strong step forward for an outfit already considered one of Philly’s most potent live acts.
Raised mostly in Hanover, Pa., Bruskewicz never set out to become a performer, despite growing up in a musical family whose members are “all suckers for tear-in-my-beer balladry.” After finishing at Drexel in 2005, the lifelong blues fanatic pursued a writer’s life in NYC, cranking out everything from an “urban Pinocchio” screenplay to an episodic mockumentary about a self-obsessed etymologist, dabbling in songcraft along the way. A return to Philly was in order once Bruskewicz began feeling “[the] mojo that’s happening now,” in terms of the city’s arts and music scenes. That’s when he and Martino linked up for the first iteration of the band, dropping their debut, Idiots, with a now-departed member in 2010.
The latest, greatest TJ Kong, featuring guitarist Kevin Conner and upright bassist Joshua Machiz, is difficult to pigeonhole stylistically. Start with the vocals: A raconteur of the well-read variety, Bruskewicz sets the tone from go with his unmistakable rasp, a pork-cracklin’ baritone that sounds like it’s being filtered through a hobo’s long johns. “It’s always me with the words,” says the frontman, who’ll typically develop melodies and lyrics, then tap his bandmates to construct the sonic space around them.
Nimble enough to juggle personal narrative and Greek mythology (“Sweet Lorraine”), rhyme true crime (lead single “Eye Witness on the Run”) and shred existential (“Post Apocalypse Blues”) within the confines of a single record, Bruskewicz admits that a finished Kong song rarely ever resembles how it sounded between his ears.
“At the beginning, I thought we could do this eclectic thing where we play both slow music and fast music, rock-out music and music with a groove,” he says. “[But] people who go to a rock ’n’ roll show don’t want to hear a ballad. They want to get fucked up.”
We’ll drink, and dance, to that.