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Chesterman sizzles with "Ham Radio"

By Clarissa Sansone, November 2000

"We can get a little greasy there," longtime Boston rocker Charlie Chesterman says of his band's - The Motorbikes' - raucous, yet catchy version of rock and roll, described by both the New York Times and Washington Post as "loose-limbed."

"It is kind of greasy little affair. Everybody's having a good time," comments the Iowa native who just released the country-oriented "Ham Radio" under the moniker Chaz & the Motorbikes.

When it comes to musical influences, Chesterman admits, "I kind of wear 'em on my sleeve," and 'Ham Radio,' with its references - both in the music and in the liner notes - to The Flying Burrito Brothers, Duane Eddy, Rufus Thomas, Lefty Frizzell and Buddy Holly, is a musical homage to early rock-n-roll and its country counterpart.

The album opens with the uptempo "When I've Got Me," which is followed by "Anymore," a rootsy number with a slow, cryin'-in-your-beer honky-tonk intro. Chesterman then tries on surfish instrumental, dabbles in country-rock, flirts with zydeco and makes a pit stop at the roadhouse.

The result, for all its varied musical exploration, is nonetheless musically cohesive. "Ham Radio" is Chesterman's fourth album, and, "To my ear, it's the most accomplished," he notes.

Pete Weiss, who, says Chesterman, "had a hand in or helped produce" all four albums, wanted this latest effort to have a "professional" sound.

Chesterman is quick to point out that the description refers not to overproduction or slickness, but to dedicated musicianship. In recording his "most professional sounding" project so far, Chesterman says he and his band used their studio time effectively, "instead of just runnin' in with a case of beer and sayin,' 'WAHOO!' which we did anyway, a couple of times."

"This is the first of the four records I've done that has a solid thematic thread to it," says Chesterman, picked up his first guitar in junior high. "There's a nice solid threadÉthat I didn't actually plan for."

Chesterman says, "The theme I perceive isÉ'don't worry about what has happened before, and don't let that get you down because something good is coming your way.'"

Varied musical influences came his way throughout his career. Growing up with four older siblings and a Beatles-fan mother (who purchased Fab Four albums ostensibly as gifts for young Charlie, but really for her own listening pleasure), Chesterman claims he was first influenced by "late 60's AM radio."

"The radio was always on" in his house, he says, adding, "I still remember when the Stones (and The Beatles) were on the radio."

The influence of 60's hits is clear on "Ham Radio" and 1997's "Dynamite Music Ma-chine," both chock full of finger popping tunes that carry a gleeful, three-minute urgency.

So how is it, then, that when listening to "Ham Radio," one can so easily look through the shaggy bangs of pop into country's knowing eyes?

"I guess I've always thought of myself as a pop musician who's decided to move in the country (as opposed to the r&b) direction," Chesterman observes. "Country music kind of hasÉa lot of facets that only now people are beginning to understand," he adds, pointing to punk and roots rock as two genres that helped bring country music out from under the big hats.

His first band, the Law, was a punk rock band in the early 80's, and Scruffy the Cat, the group in which Chesterman gained his highest musical exposure, teased out the country elements even more.

Scruffy, he says, was labeled, "cowpunk," along with groups like Jason and the Scorchers and the Long Ryders. They were "the biggest country band around here," says Chesterman of Scruffy's place in Boston's 1980's music scene and released several albums nationally.

It was during his days in Scruffy, in fact, that Chesterman says he was "introduced to the beauty of country music."

Scruffy's manager, Patrick McGrath, listened to a lot of traditional country music and turned Chesterman onto it. Later on, in 1996, Chesterman released the straight country album "Studebakersfield."

That his latest endeavor is more Crickets than Beatles should come as no surprise.

Will Charlie and The Motorbikes be coming soon to a club near you to plug in their "Ham Radio"?

Probably not. Chesterman and the band - including Andy Pastore on guitar, Jim Faris on bass, and Gary Gendron on drums - "don't have the time or the inclination to go on the road," Chesterman says.

Faris, who is a web designer as well as a bassist, will enable the band to peddle their album online. Chesterman has a day job too, which he sums up thus: "I work at a little factory," and the life of the struggling, touring band no longer holds appeal: "It can be a real ball breaker," he explains.

No longer seeking the drunken good times, groupies, and notoriety usually craved by the up-and-coming musician, Chesterman says for "as much as I play out (locally)ÉI don't feel like I'm part of the game anymore."

"What I feel like I'm more interested inÉis just how good I can be," he says. To him, playing music "is really fun and gets me out of the house."

"I like entertaining people, too," he adds. "For God's sake, that's part of what it's about."

So, what's the secret to writing such catchy songs? "I don't know," says Chesterman, who describes the songwriting process as "never com(ing) out the same way twice." He brings the band members "a melody and a clutch of chords," just a "skeletal frame" of a song, "then we all kind of wrestle with it for a while," he says.

Now 40, Chesterman has played guitar and sung since he was 13; he claims making music is something "I haven't got out of practice" doing. "I'm beginning to think I'm getting really good at it," he adds, "so I shouldn't stop now."