How Ben Kyle beat Lyme disease, Tony Zaccardi bought a bar, and Romantica made a new album out of old songs


Romantica Nicole McCoy

Romantica’s new album, Outlaws, features 10 previously unreleased songs that were outlawed from the four previous Romantica recordings.

Frontman Ben Kyle curated and compiled Outlaws from previous recording sessions and live shows over the past 10 years, during his more than two year recovery period from a life-threatening bout with Lyme disease.

Since Kyle formed Romantica in 2002, the Americana/rock/folk band has gained renown for their extraordinarily poignant songs with poetic lyrics and excellent instrumentation, as well as their captivating live shows.

They’ve had a number of lineup changes over the years. Outlaws features contributions from former Romantica members Luke Jacobs and James Orvis, current members Tony Zaccardi, Danger Dave Strahan, Ryan Lovan, and Aaron Fabbrini, as well as longtime collaborators Jessy Greene, Eric Heywood, Carrie Rodriguez, Joe Savage, Alex Oana, Tom Herbers, and Brad Bivens.

City Pages had the opportunity to meet with Kyle and Zaccardi, Romantica’s longtime bassist and the new owner of Palmer’s Bar.

CP: Please tell me about your new album, Outlaws—how it came to be, your inspiration for creating it.

BK: The name comes from the idea that these songs are all outlaws from the Romantica catalog. Over the years, as we made albums, there were tracks that were still favorites by at least some of the band, if not all, but didn’t fit on an album for thematic reasons, or the context.

I had just come out of a two to three year experience of an illness, struggling with Lyme disease. So, awakening out of that and regaining a lot of my ability and cognitive functionality and imagination and creativity and ability to create, I’d had a chance to reflect on some of the work we did. And listening to some of these songs again, I was wowed by how beautiful they are, or what they have to offer or to surprise me, in that I ignored them for a long time, but realizing there was some depth and treasure in what we’d left behind or forgotten.

I thought it was perfect timing to coincide with the celebration of healing and a resurrection feeling I am getting from coming back from this illness, to put together this group of songs that were also outlawed for a time. In my explanation of the illness to fans, I talk about how it felt like being outlawed or exiled from normal life. It got so bad, I couldn’t touch my phone or use my computer. It was really the feeling of being exiled. So there’s a commonality there with the idea of these songs.

CP: Have the songs changed in their meaning or significance to you over time?

BK: Yes! Yeah, they really have. I wrote the song “Give Your Heart a Shelter,” and it was all about not doing what you’re supposed to do, but instead just staying home and taking care of yourself. Basically giving yourself time to heal, and waiting until the words are true and until the light shines through. And at the time I didn’t know I was about to go through this Lyme disease which did force me to stay home and heal and wait until a time when I did feel like the words were true and I did have light.

CP: Tony, tell me about working with Ben and during the last few years while he’s been on the road to recovery.

TZ: I’ve known Ben for so long that often times I forget how talented he is, because I’ve seen him sing these songs so many times. But there’s certain songs still that I’m like, “Oh, dude, you’ve got to do this, because of that thing you do in that song.”

He’s great to work with and work for. He’s a very positive, loving person. He definitely encourages the best for people and not in a forceful weird way. He just wants you to be the best that you can be…. We get together after not having played six or seven months and it was like it never stopped. That’s Dave, Ryan and Aaron. It’s amazing to play with so many talented musicians. I feel fortunate because I’m kind of the fuck-up in the group.

CP: How did you get to know Ben and join Romantica?

TZ: I met Ben shortly after he moved to America, around 1994. I’d become friends with his sister Laurie, and brother Robin, from Valet. When you were a teenager you’d hang out in Perkins, this was in Maple Grove. We sat there every night and ate bread bowls, drank soda pop and wrote poems until three in the morning. Wrote limericks, smoked cigarettes, annoyed the servers.

We went to the Foo Fighters concert at First Avenue in 1995, ended up in some photos Laurie had taken out back with Dave Grohl and Pat Smear. Everyone was trying to get a photo of Dave Grohl and Pat Smear. We did a group photo with everybody’s cameras, and in ours, I’m giving Dave Grohl the bunny ears. I was 18. That was their first time they played First Ave. Their record wasn’t even out yet; nobody knew their songs. I became friends with the Kyle family shortly thereafter.

I started seeing Ben playing in coffee shops when he was a teenager, and remember thinking even then, “Damn, this kid’s really good! Holy crap!” I’d see them play every Sunday at Kieran’s Pub in the late ’90s; they’d do the St. Brendan’s lunch. The whole family would perform. Their dad Paul would lead it, and Ben and whoever else would get up and play.

Ben called me one morning, about 2007. He said, “Hey I need a bass player. Would you like to join Romantica?” I was like, “No, I’m so busy, I’m in two bands already.” I was thinking, “I’m doing the right thing, with my wife.” Then she and I went to dinner at Rossi’s Blue Star Room downtown, which is now Hell’s Kitchen. I mentioned, “Ben asked me to join Romantica. I told him no. Cool, right? Are you proud of me?” She says, “You call him back! Tell him you’re going to be in Romantica!”

CP: Is playing bass for Romantica different than with your other bands, Tony?

TZ: Oh yeah! I had to learn how to play with my fingers. In Kruddler at the time, and with Eleganza, I still use the pick. Loud, fast, aggressive like Duff McKagan of Guns ‘n’ Roses. Romantica music calls for something completely different, real sensitive. I had to learn how to do the country kind of bass playing.

I drink a lot less before I play Romantica than my other band’s shows [laughs].

We played the Fitzgerald Theater last year, and if I hit a note . . . boom! You can feel it! Every time you hit a note, it’s gotta be the right one. It’s a lot different than playing Mort’s or something.

CP: I was at your Shadowlands release, Ben. It’s interesting and good to hear how things have evolved for you.

BK: I was really in the depth of my dark valley experience. But I was given a little window of grace for that show. Even then I was really struggling to be present. There was some joy that night but there was also a lot of struggle, yeah.

CP: How many of the songs did you rearrange or remaster?

BK: All of these songs were mixed and mastered from where they were at. They were in a way cleaned up, but one of the things I’m really glad about is these songs didn’t get pushed through the polishing mill. They got left in their raw state. In the mixing and mastering they weren’t overdone, they were just massaged a little. I love that, because probably if some of these songs made it on the earlier albums they probably would’ve been polished a little more and maybe to the detriment. I’m glad we left them as they were captured.

CP: How does it feel to hear the Romantica songs again, Tony?

TZ: There’s a song “Lost in the Cosmos” I completely forgot existed. I have in my emails all 20 songs that were recorded but they were original rough mixes, I forgot about some of them. To hear them in a fresh light, especially that song, I wondered, “Why is this not on the radio?” It’s a different song for Ben, but I think it’s a perfect little pop song.

“Baby Killed Bobby” is finally getting released, and I can’t wait for people to hear it—Jessy Greene plays on it, and we centered the tracks around the same time we were recording Ben Kyle’s solo record. What she did to it from her apartment in L.A., was stunning. I get the chills thinking about it. There was a handful like that that I’m excited to see the light of day, because they’re staples in our live sets.

CP: Ben, does your background with some of your family being musicians, and coming from Ireland affect or inspire your songwriting?

BK: Yeah. I think it really does! I think a lot of it’s intangible, to say how or why. It’s in the bones, it’s in the blood, it’s through osmosis. How do we know how the imagination works, and where we pull this stuff from, you know? It’s all kind of a mystery and a miracle. Ireland is there in a big way. I think the folk songs I learned growing up, that I sang for years, the Irish melodies . . . I know that that history of my growing and becoming, and mixing that with my teenage years in Minnesota and being exposed to American roots music and that coming together in this melting pot of sorts produces these ideas we can be thankful for.

Certainly growing up in Ireland there’s a temperament in the air, the cultural, social environment, the land, the landscape, the nature and the smells, the sights and sounds. Then there’s the traditional folk music, combined. It’s not intentional; I don’t try to bring Ireland into my music. It just comes, right? I think it’s hard to articulate what happens, but it’s definitely there. Also, I’m definitely writing songs I wouldn’t be if I never left Ireland. Because it’s been hybridized with this other genetic strain, that’s become part of my genetic environment for the last 20 years in the Midwest, the Minnesota landscape, the winters and the cultural and social context here and the music I’ve been exposed to, in getting to know American music deeper.

CP: Your writing and sharing of “The Story” is as poetic and revelatory as your songs. How did you feel writing it?

BK: It was really difficult to write. It was vulnerable and I really wanted to articulate my experience but not in a way that was “Oh, poor me” or “I need your help,” not in a way that was egocentric but expressing my truth in experience but also as a gift, a way to encourage people and say, “this is our experience.” I didn’t want to say, “This is what I went through and it’s all over and everything’s better now” because that’s not the truth. The healing has been fantastic, phenomenal, and wonderful shifts have happened, but it’s still a process, and I’m writing from the midst of it.

Being able to express that in a way that didn’t undermine the healing . . . I felt it was really important to share this experience because it was so hidden. I went through it for two years and nobody really knew about it. In a lot of ways I appeared normal. I was still trying to do gigs and get out, but I was so undermined in my function and ability. I felt it was important to share that just to be true about my experience, because I know as humans that’s what we need to do, is be true, honest about our experience. In doing that we can strengthen one another, because we’ve all been through, or are going through something like that. And we can say, “Yes, I feel that.” Or, “Thank you for sharing that because that gives me hope, or hope for my friend or . . .”

It’s important just to be able to see some reasons to be thankful and hopeful in the midst of what seems so difficult. Without that, the lights are snuffed out. You’ve got to keep the lights burning. And healing is possible. You’ve got to encourage each other that that’s true.

CP: Are you writing new songs?

BK: Yes, it’s so beautiful to have your creative imagination come back. I’ve just started writing recently, and it’s just a gift to see those things come out. Because for a long time it was impossible to access that part of my soul, my brain, my life. I’m so excited and encouraged and hopeful for the future and for the creation of new songs that will come from this experience and articulate some things that will be good for the world, to put out there.

I even plan these recording sessions months in advance without any songs, just trusting and believing I’ll have what I need when I get there. My modus operandi has been to keep taking steps, keep building things and putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that when you get there, the resources, the people and the songs will be there. “If you build it they will come” is one of the things I live by, so I’m very excited about that.

CP: Do you want to comment more on Ryan Adams participating on the new album?

BK: Ryan Adams . . . I’m so thankful for that experience and that gift. I still get a great big smile on my face when I hear his backing vocal come in on “The Dark.” One, because it’s a tangible reminder that it happened. Two, it’s beautiful; I love his voice. Three, he’s somebody I admire, respect, and honor. The gift of having someone like that come alongside you and encourage and support you and bring their thing to your thing . . . I just smile and pinch myself, “Was that real?” [Laughs] When he invited me to open the show at the State Theatre, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew he was pretty eccentric. For all I knew, he was gonna just decide on a whim, that I wasn’t going to open that night [laughs].

Something very different happened and he asked if there was a song that I’d like to do together. We played for a while together in the dressing room and I brought out this song I’d literally finished writing the night before. He seemed to love it and said, “Let’s do that one!” and ten minutes later we were onstage, I wasn’t just opening for Ryan Adams, he was singing this song with me. That was wonderful, a real gift. This is a live recording from that moment. The song was brand new; the relationship is brand new, a very fresh moment.

CP: Is there anything you’d like to add about Romantica currently, and your release show?

TZ: Romantica as a band has evolved, not just because of the members but also as a personality. As Ben’s gotten older and matured . . . part of the reason why some of those records didn’t come out earlier is because Ben is a perfectionist, and in some of these songs, he’s loosened up his approach to that a little bit.

I think it’s going to be fun. You’re getting the best that we can do. I like to think it won’t be as serious; it’ll be a good time for us. I’m singing a lot more than ever. Danger Dave is too. I quit smoking a number of years ago, and that gave me more confidence in my singing voice.

Last year we played the Fitzgerald Theater, and I played Palmer’s two days later. I was like, “Boy, one extreme to the other!” And now, we’re playing the Fitzgerald Theater, and I’m buying Palmer’s within two days! [laughs] What a difference a year will make.

BK: I think it’s just going to be a celebration of healing. I want it to be a great Thanksgiving. I’m so grateful for my health, my recovery, for everyone who contributed to this album, to the band, to the extended band over the years. I hope it’s a great celebration, a great Thanksgiving, a beautiful night of music!

CP: So Tony, how does it feel buying Palmer’s? What are you looking forward too?

TZ: It feels like, “Holy crap!” As long as everything stays on track, I’ll own it on Monday. I pretty much had a nervous breakdown the other day [laughs].

CP: Will you be keeping some of the Palmer’s traditions?

TZ: I will be keeping all of the traditions. Thanksgiving with Spider John, funerals, birthdays . . . just today, Lisa brought in a birthday cake for somebody’s birthday. As much of that stuff as I’m aware of, absolutely. Today there was a box of free clothes on the free table. It’s a community place; that’s the heart and soul of it.

CP: Are you keeping bartending shifts at Grumpy’s?

TZ: I’ll be keeping Thursdays at Grumpy’s. I’ve got to pay my mortgage. I don’t want to displace anyone at Palmer’s. That’s the best way I can do it for now.

An Evening with Romantica
Where: The Fitzgerald Theater
When: 8 p.m. Sat. May 5
Tickets: $22-$45; more info here