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An Interview with Chris "Kid Coconuts" Acosta of The New York Citizens

Much in the way that 2-Tone Records was really the label for The Specials and The Selecter, in its early days, Moon Records was the label for The Toasters and The New York Citizens (NYC's). While The Toasters hewed to a 2-Tone inspired sound, The NYC's created a compelling musical stew with ska as its base, but that also drew inspiration from '60s Stax, British punk, new wave and 2-Tone, as well as funk and hard rock. In fact, you could make a case that along with Fishbone, The NYC's helped give birth to a uniquely American version of ska (AKA: ska-core) that proliferated after they had broken up. Though The NYC's were contemporaries of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (who took the ska-core sound and ran with it in the 90's), it was The NYC's who were among the very first American ska bands to try the kitchen sink musical approach  that helped give birth ska-core.  If you don't believe me just give Helltown a spin!

The NYC's had their origins is a band called Legal Gender which included singer Robert Tierney (read my interview with Tierney here), Mike Hicks (drums), Dan Marotta (guitar) and Paul Gil (read my interview with Gil here) on the bass. While attending Manhattan College, Marotta met keyboard player Jerry O'Sullivan and saxophone player John Q. Pavlik. Initially, Legal Gender had a new wave/punk sound with some ska influences, but it was the addition of Chris 'Kid Coconuts' Acosta (the Chas Smash of the band) and the recording of the song 'Overcast' (as a split 7" for Moon Records) which set them on the way to a new sound and a new name.

My first encounter with The NYC's came when my band Bigger Thomas (then known as Panic!) opened a show for them at Rutgers University in September of 1988. My first impression of them was that they seemed like a gang.  They had an intimidating swagger on and off the stage. Though it was our very first show (we had been together about a month), we must have made an impression, because The NYC's were initially responsible for passing word about us on to others around the New York ska scene including Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters.

Over the early months of 1989, The NYC's invited us to play other shows with them in New York and New Jersey. Though we always sensed a bit of a rivalry with the band and they tended to treat us as outsiders because we weren't part of the New York City ska scene, they were also responsible for giving us a lot of early breaks. By the time we started playing shows with The NYC's they were an established act and I learned a lot by watching them -- particularly Tierney and Acosta.

As a singer and a front man, Tierney embodied the best elements of a sneering Johnny Rotten and an eloquent Morrissey. Though the band were unpredictable and edgy and always seemingly ready for a fight, underneath their bravado lay Tierney's lyrics that revealed a sensitive, literate and socially conscious soul. And right beside him was Acosta who played the role of Dave Collins (of Double Barrel fame) and Flavor Flav egging on the crowd and showing off the dancing skills he honed in clubs around New York City before he joined the band. Acosta was the perfect foil to Tierney, playing the hype man to a tee.

I recently re-connected with Acosta after nearly 25 years when I bumped into him at The Selecter show in New York City this past October and then again when The Skints played in Brooklyn this past December.  We spent some time catching up and sharing stories and he agreed to conduct an interview with me.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I grew up in North Brooklyn (Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick) on the Bushwick/Ridgewood, Queens border. My landlord (and surrogate grandmother) was this little old Italian lady from Bari, Italy (Rosa Amendolare -- we shared the same birthday). We used a photo of her clothes line with our "Boxer Shorts" for the "Stranger Things Have Happened " album cover, and then a photo of her on "The Truth About The New York Citizens" album.

What was the first record or single that you bought? What was it like to grow in New York City in the 80's? 
As far as music, I can say I am very fortunate to have grown up in New York City in the late 70's and 80's. Around 1978-1980 I would go with my buddies to all those illegal "school yard" or public park DJ parties. The DJ's would spin stuff like Jimmy Castor's Just Begun, Archie Bell & the Drells Tighten Up, Booker T & MG's Melting Pot, James Brown's Give it up or Turn it Loose, and The Jackson 5's Hum Along and Dance. We would "up rock" (before break dancing). I used to belong to a dance crew called Touch of Rock!

As I got a little older I went out with my older sisters who initially were into rock and disco but some how made it to underground places like the Loft (David Mancuso) and the Paradise Garage (Larry Levan). It was there that not only did I hear stuff I was familiar with, but stuff that sounded familiar but that I had never heard.

Hearing Time Warp, Walking On Sunshine and Living On The Frontline by Eddy Grant, Kraftwerk, Another One Bites the Dust by Queen, Talking Heiklan, The Clash and even The Police at the Loft really influenced me. I suppose then during my sophomore year in high school (I went to James Madison, which was a mix between Guidos, Rockers and West Indians) I got into "Electro" and "New Wave". We'd go to places like Danceteria, the Mudd Club and the Pyramid. This was also when I heard for the first time groups like The Specials, Madness and The Selecter as well as The Smiths, New Order and The Cure.

By the summer of 1983 I was going to Hardcore matinees at CBGB's seeing bands like Kraut, Agnostic Front and Warzone. However, all along it was the 2-Tone sound that influenced me the most. This is what made growing up in NYC great, being able to make friends with people of different musical tastes and having the choice of either getting into or not. Everything was always just a subway ride away...

How did you first meet Robert Tierney and the other members of the band? 
I meet Rob in 1985 at New York City Technical College in downtown Brooklyn. We were both studio graphic arts students. We shared the same musical taste as far as new wave and ska. Rob told me about a band he had called Legal Gender along with Dan Marotta (guitar), Mike Hicks (drummer) and Paul Gil (bass) and later Gerry O'Sullivan (keyboards) and John Pavlik (sax).  I particularly got along with Dan Marotta!

How did you become Kid Coconuts?
At first I was just helping Legal Gender get gigs (I had a buddy who worked at CBGB's). But then I sort of became their "dance man" and added the coconut sound as part of an inside joke between us from watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the Knights couldn't afford horses so they used two coconut halves to make the "clicking" sound of the hooves...). So ever since then I became sort of an "act," the only musician to buy his "instrument" at the produce section of a super market.

Could you describe the mid-to-late 80s NYC Ska scene for the benefit of those who didn't experience it? Which were some of your favorite bands from that time?
As far as I can remember at first there weren't a lot of ska type bands. I remember seeing The Toasters and Second Step like in 1986. I remember being particularly impressed with Cavo and Lionel of the Toasters. I felt they brought that urban NYC vibe to the sound. The scene was not big but cool. It was nice going to dive bars like Blanche's and Sofie's in a shark skin suit.

You worked for Moon Records right? At first I helped do the art work for a couple of the album covers for the Toasters and a few of the compilations.
I first helped Moon Records to broker some of the catalog to Spain for distribution and vice versa. Then after wards I helped put together two Latin Ska compilations with bands from Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean. It was a of fun putting those comps together I made a lot of friends in far places.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in New York City that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
I remember taking all the beer from The Ramones dressing room (in front of their fucking faces) at City Gardens in Trenton; smoking a huge joint with Rita Marley while waiting to go on before Ziggy Marley. Also the huge fight we had with a bunch of Nazi skinheiklan at a show in Los Angeles. We were playing on stage and we were exchanging spit with each other until we said fuck it "let's fight! you fuckin' soft pussies...!"

Tell me about recording “On the Move” in 1988 which is the quintessential NYCs’ record. What was it like working with Bucket in the studio?
Working with Rob Hingley helped us grow in my opinion. We had our own sound, it was clear we weren't trying to revive 2-Tone but rather mix in our own New York City influences. We tried to capture that with this initial album.

Both our bands were part of the "NYC Ska Live" album recorded at the Cat Club in 1990. Do you have any memories of that show and what are your thoughts about the album?
I remember that there were a lot of bands on the bill! It was great to do a live recording with all these bands! I think I also did the art work for that album...

Our bands shared the stage at City Gardens in Trenton, N.J., quite a few times. What are your memories of that iconic club? You recorded a fantastic live version of “Lemon Jelly” there that appeared on “The Truth about the New York Citizens.”
We used to love playing at City Gardens, the crowd there was extremely receptive to our sound! The 'Lemon Jelly" recording was so much fun! I love the sort of droll voice from the sound man at the end.."Well..., there you have it...that's the New York Citizens..."

The band also recorded 'Stranger Things Have Happened' in 1990 which had some classic songs including “Shut Up and Listen" and “Boxer Shorts” What are your memories of that recording session?
I think personally this was my favorite album as far as concept because we tried to "string along " all the songs so it came off a "mixed tape". We sampled everything from the radio to a small snippet from The Skatalites.

I've read that the band was never completely happy with its recorded output - that the studio recordings didn't fully capture the NYCs’ live sound and energy. Are there any live recordings in the NYC vaults that might be released at some point down the line? And which studio recordings come close to meeting your expectations?
I think we all felt that our sounds worked best live on stage. I'm sure a lot of bands probably felt like that. So it's hard to capture raw energy when the recording studio engineer asks you to do several more takes.

The band did a few national tours and opened for a number of national acts like Big Audio Dynamite, Fishbone, The Ramones and more. Did the NYCs have an agent or did you book your own gigs?
We did have a good buddy of ours help with the booking, Tom Perna. Then later either myself, Dan Marotta or Rob Davidman (also friend) handled booking.

Why did the NYC's break up?
I suppose because of different views, kind of hard to say now that all this time has passed.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The NYC’s?
My favorite moments come with the latter line-up: Rob Cittandino on bass, Dave "Ma'Horney" Mullen on sax and keyboards, and Rich Zukor on the drums. We'd hang out a lot and sort of rolled like a gang that happened to be in a band. We'd get into arguments or some times into fights with other folks and then realized "oh shit..., we gotta go on..!"

What are you up to these days? 
I'm married to my lovely wife Wanda. We live in Williamsburg (same place since 1998) and I work as Park Manager for NYC Parks. I started as Park Ranger in 2005. From 2000 to 2005 I owned a small Espresso & Wine bar with Rob Cittandino.

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