What is the fastest land animal? Well, if you search Wikipedia, you’ll find out that the cheetah is the fastest known animal on the land. Most of us have probably known that tidbit of trivial information since elementary school. Cheetahs have been clocked at speeds upward of 75 miles per hour, which is pretty fast for a quadruped. Did you also know that with an internal anatomy different from most other large cats, the cheetah is actually built for speed? Did you further know that there is a new contender for the title, and it’s not even a feline? In fact, it’s not even an animal at all. Fastest Land Animal is actually a music group, that also has a somewhat different internal anatomy from its contemporaries. And, oh yeah… it is built for speed.
Fastest Land Animal is the brainchild of The Cringe founder and lead vocalist John Cusimano. He explains how the name and the project came to be. ” To be honest, I never loved the name The Cringe. It’s something I came up with when I was in high school. The original idea of the band was we were going to be this funny, punky band that was so bad it would make you cringe. For a while now I’ve had this name kicking around, Fastest Land Animal. I thought, what a cool name for a band.” So, the name ostensibly lent itself to what the group would be stylistically. “Because it’s got ‘Fast’ in the name, let’s make all the songs fast and punky, and not be so tied to the classic rock, blues-based, guitar solo rock sound.” And about being built for speed, “The rules were much like Fight Club. The first rule is, no song is slower than 150 beats per minute. The second rule, is no song is slower than 150 beats per minute.”
So there’s a new project, with a new name and new approach, why not make it four-for-four and do it as an unknown group under assumed names? “So that expanded into, let’s not only do a side project, let’s come up with alter egos, fake names, fake biographies and pretend we’re a whole different band?” This is where it gets interesting. “Shark Samuels (Andrew Meskin) is the drummer. He was playing pickle buckets on street corners, and kept getting arrested, because he kept waking up the neighbors and annoying everyone. He ends up in West Hollywood. Alfonz Castillo (Jonny Blaze) is the bass player. He was out of Brazil. He was going to be a soccer player, but that didn’t work out. I think he ate a soccer ball because he was hungry. He ended up in West Hollywood as well. I am Screamin’ Jack Novak. I was born in England and I was a little devil child, raised by two Rottweilers and an evil nanny. Somehow I made my way to West Hollywood. We all met in prison and started a band, and we reside right off the Sunset Strip.”
With Cusimano being in New York, where some of the COVID lockdowns were the most restrictive, he found himself channeling his frustrations into writing fast songs about escaping and being free. “I’m in a group, they call it The Song Game, started by a singer-songwriter out of Austin, Texas by the name of Bob Schneider. There’s between 15 and 20 people, some of whom you may have heard of, and some you may not have. Every week he challenges us with a phrase or a word. You have to write a song incorporating that word or phrase in some capacity. It’s just about exercising that song writing muscle. Bob’s a good friend and he’s actually on the album on the third song, Bubble Candy, we call him Bip Frisco.” Before the pandemic Cusimano was relating the new project to Schneider and what the parameters were. “He says, ‘That’s easy.’ And like an hour later, we had written that song.”
Cusimano has another mentor when it comes to songwriting. “Working with Don Gilmore, he’s been our producer for a while. When you talk about songwriting, he’s really good at nurturing the songwriter within you. It’s hard to come up with a song, but once you come up with a hook and a chorus you write a verse around that. Then you have to come up with the bridge, or as they say in England, the middle eight. I always think you have to write a whole other new song, you don’t want to bore the listener, and it has to fit in there in a puzzle piece kind of way.” Gilmore challenged that way of thinking and convinced him to not overthink it. “He said something that stuck with me, he said, ‘If you listen to your favorite rock songs or songs that were huge hits, if you really break them down, they’re not that complicated.’ I mean think of The Who’s My Generation, two chords over and over again. But it’s the message in the attack and the presentation of it that makes it great. And it’s a great hook. So, if you overanalyze stuff, then you go down a rabbit hole.”
Being challenged to write a song a week may seem like quite an undertaking. “If you’re writing a song a week, you’re going to have 52 songs at the end of the year. Maybe the majority of them stink. But at the end of the year, you might have 8 to 12 songs that are potentially pretty good, and you have an album.” Sometimes a writer may think a song is marginal and not good enough, but when the creative forces of bandmates and a producer get involved, that stance may change. “The first single off the album is Too Close To The Fire, and we had pretty much finished the album.” The album was only at 23-25 minutes long, he told the rest of the guys, “I got one more song, but I don’t know if you guys are going to like it. So I sent Don and the other guys in the band my demo of it, and immediately they were like, ‘Yes, this is the song! This is a hit, we’re doing it.’ So that was the last song we recorded for the album.” So the last became first in this instance, as Too Close To The Fire is the opening track.
Cusimano offers some closing thoughts from his playful and witty mind. “Make sure people know to never work with children, animals or sock puppets.” The first two, children and animals are from an old W.C. Fields quote about show business. The third is a good natured ribbing at his publicist. As they were trying to keep their identities under wraps, they have made several videos, one of which has sock puppets representing the band, another has the band with televisions where their heads should be. “She said, ‘You’ve got to tell everyone who you are immediately, and stop making sock puppet videos.'” The last year has taken its toll on all of us, and Cusimano looks forward to the end of all this. “Once the world gets back to normal, whenever that may be, we hope to see everyone at a town near you on tour, whenever that happens. I’m with my wife at home, we’ve been quarantined for almost a year now. I got my dog here. Because of who my wife is, and how well she cooks, I don’t miss going to restaurants.” In case you did not know, Cusimano is married to celebrity chef Rachael Ray. He is also her business partner and is a licensed attorney. He manages the business affairs for the Rachael Ray empire. “But I do miss live music. I miss attending and performing live music. I really want to do it again and hopefully when things get back to normal, we’ll be doing that.” When the world does return to normal, make sure to keep your eyes open, if you blink, you may just miss these cats!