I drove down to his place in Chester County (southeast PA) early this February to go visit him. It was a rainy day, and the farther I traveled south, the more excited I was to do this interview. There were a few reasons I wanted to go down there besides the interview. One, I brought my friend Zack VanWhy with me, who is helping my twin brother, Luke, produce the record he’s writing. Sean, Zack, and I all actually played on this record, too. Besides this, I take any chance I can to get out of town for a few days. It keeps my head on straight, for the monotony of East Stroudsburg really takes its toll.
We were finally there. I parked my beat-to-shit Honda Civic on the side of the road and took a good look at the neighborhood. All the houses looked relatively the same, and the street was quiet and still. Nobody was outside except Zack and me. I imagined writers like John Cheever, Updike, or Richard Yates writing about a place like this: a suburban town that makes its residents dull from boredom. This was still more desirable to me than being in the woods for the weekend.
We spent the first night recording my brother’s album. It was great to be there, for a room filled with instruments and recording equipment feels like something just short of a miracle. I feel safe from all the ugliness in the world when I’m hidden behind the walls of a studio, spending hours with my friends to write music that will display the feelings that words fail to show. We also all talked on Sean’s podcast, discussing our musical backgrounds and our processes for songwriting.
We did the interview the morning after. I was sipping black coffee, getting my notebook and pen ready to go. Sean had a glass of water, and I could tell he was just as excited as I was to talk about the music scene. Sean’s looks haven’t changed much over the years. He has thick black hair and has worn black-rimmed glasses for as long as I’ve known him. He has a normal height, kind brown eyes, and an endearing smile. I asked him how he got started playing music in the Poconos.
“Well, definitely my brother was my introduction to the scene,” Arawjo said. “He was four years older than me. So that was, I think like, I don’t know, an interesting gap. I think a good gap, because we weren’t in high school at the same time, but he kind of like paved the way through the scene, or into the scene, at least for me.
“Then I started going to shows at Toast,” Arawjo said. “Right away we started playing, as well.
“That spawned O.O.T (his old band called Only on Tuesday), which was me and Kyle Ferris and Brian. And then we started playing shows pretty often when I was in 9th grade. So, like the other places that were around, there was this place called Bizmo’s that my brother used to go to all the time. And he was coming back from those shows, I wasn’t allowed to go to, but he was coming back from those shows with sampler CDs of all kinds of like punk and ska stuff that was awesome. That place closed down,” he said.
He then started reminiscing about his old days at Toast again.
“I feel like, pretty consistently, good bands came through there. It was this small, hole-in-the-wall place, but like, we got to play with some really fun bands. Slightly Askew (a local ska band), which I ended up being in later. I first heard them there and we opened for them,” he said. “I think the biggest band we played with there was probably the River City Rebels, who were like on Victory Records.
“It was cool that there was a place where me and my high school freshman friends could go and feel comfortable, not only hanging out, but presenting our primitive, early art in an accepted space, where it was also not awkward for thirty-year-old professional musicians to come and play after us. That was kind of like the magic scene of that scene at the time. There was no barrier between stage and backstage, and outside. It was a coffee shop,” Arawjo said.
He also mentioned that, despite being only fifteen at the time, he always got paid for the shows he played. This is quite the opposite of the ethos with many venues nowadays, for many make bands pay to play if they don’t sell enough tickets.
He had a few ideas of why Poconos music is not as prevalent. He doesn’t think it is totally dead, which is interesting to note because many people do believe it is. But one reason he thought of is that a lot of young musicians nowadays focus so much more on recording than they do on playing live. He mentioned how it is so much easier to sound good through a recording, where one can play something over and over to get it right, than it is to sound good with four other band members in a live setting.
“Home recording is so much more appealing than getting your band to sound good live,” Arawjo said.
We also talked about how guitar music is just becoming more of a niche nowadays compared to some other styles of music. This is something that not only affects Poconos music, but all the music scenes around the world that thrive on rock, punk, or any genre that one associates with a guitar. People are doing solo acts more often, and rather than picking up a guitar, there are more people going for DJ-type gigs. There is nothing wrong with this, but towering rock bands like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones now seem historical, situated in a time where four or five people writing music together had enough power to change the world. Picking up a guitar is not enough anymore. To become a towering rock band in history now seems unachievable, a total pipe dream.
“The biggest factor is that there’s just not that magic combination of somebody who has a venue and is really cool, and a Joe Ferree (an old Toast booker), a young kid taking the initiative to book shows and get good acts in town that he knows will draw at least some people, and fill it in with local bands,” Sean said.
He also said how the Sherman Theater isn’t the answer for resurrecting a scene. He said they’re too focused on national acts, which is fine because it’s such a big theater, but that it still doesn’t create an avenue for a local scene to thrive.
Despite all this, Sean said he wouldn’t change the way things are nowadays to go back to the early 2000s. He mentioned how YouTube may make some musicians complacent to play live, but that it’s just too much of a luxury to sit at his home in Coatesville, Pennsylvania and watch a band play on the west coast.
“I’m nostalgic for the old scene,” Sean said. “I’m glad that I lived in it, and I’m glad that I’m seeing both. I would have not traded that experience for anything. I’m also glad that I could sit on my couch and go watch a really great live performance of Chris Murray (a ska artist) who lives on the west coast and I’ve never seen him live. I don’t think I would trade YouTube for the old scene at this point because I’m kind of spoiled too.”
Sean said it’s impossible to go back to the old days with the scene. There is just too much technology involved. He does, however, think it is easier than most people think to get something going again. All it takes is one place and for some people to care. Punk scenes aren’t situated around thousands of residents in a town. They are made from a handful of people that are willing to care and participate.
Sean and I actually had the same high school band director growing up. At the end of the interview, we talked about Mr. Bakner (our director) and how inspirational he was in our formative years with music. This was different than the punk scene side, for he taught us in the context of symphonic band. Sean played the flute, and I played trombone. Sean continued to play flute after high school. He has a Master’s in Music Performance from NYU, so it’s easy to say that his skills are virtuosic.
This is a different context of music in the Poconos that probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap is the longest running jazz club in the country. Although funding for the arts in high school is often threatened, there is still more of a framework that keeps it in place compared to the rock and punk scene. So, at least in this sense, Poconos music hasn’t gone away, and probably never will.
Zack and I headed back home to East Stroudsburg that same morning. My twin brother lives in Philly. That is where I want to go after graduation, so I always get a sense of fulfillment when I’m close to the city. This was apparent as I drove north on the PA Turnpike, and the weather seemed to get rainier and drearier with every passing mile.
When I got home, I cracked open a beer, and stayed in my room and read until it got dark. I was reading The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, a writer with a pure, elegant style. This is a novel about yearning. The protagonist, Kitty, is in an unhappy marriage, not because her husband is wicked, but because the affection he has is unrequited on her end. As things change in the novel, Kitty realizes how much love she had for her husband, Walter, but because her life changed from time and circumstances, she is unable to make up for when she was cold and unaffectionate. She wanted a passionate romance so much that it made her blind to the love she and Walter had all along.
Yearning is such a prevalent theme in literature and even lyrics in music. Is it because people never cherish the present? Not until it turns into a memory? I feel that way about the bands I’ve been in. I feel that way about many chapters in my life.
As I stared at the leafless trees through my bedroom window, I thought of the friends I would talk to next. I played in a band with Joe and Robby Vena from the ages of 19 to 21. We were in a hardcore punk band called New Miseries. It’s funny to look back on now, but that band meant so much to me at the time. I wasn’t ready for school at those ages. I wanted to be with my friends, play music, and see where that could take me throughout the world. Unfortunately, just like most bands, our dreams were bigger than our accomplishments. During my time in the band, we recorded an E.P. and played many shows. We did a mini tour hitting places like Philadelphia, Long Island, and Boston. The dream was empty to begin with. Making a living playing hardcore/punk music isn’t realistic in the long run. How long do people stay in bands, ten years at the most? Even so, maybe I needed those dreams at the time to bring me back to reality enough to get my head straight and go to school.
Check out Part Three here
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