Rock band biopics often present their subjects in one specific, curated light: instant stardom. Take the 2018 Oscar-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a prime example. Freddie Mercury, masterfully portrayed by Rami Malek, meets his future bandmates at a hole-in-the-wall concert, tells them he’d like to join their band and boom — Queen is formed and rocketed into stardom weeks later.
Seldom does such a miracle occur, and New Jersey born-and-bred indie pop-rock band Deal Casino knows that isn’t the case. Since forming in 2013, the band has changed its name and dealt with feelings of insecurity about its place in the industry, but it has only propelled them forward.
Deal Casino played its first set at The Governors Ball Music Festival in New York City May 31 and having performed at several music festivals in the past — New Jersey’s Sea.Here.Now and Delaware’s Firefly being two of them — the members say they still feel out of their element.
The four band members — guitarist and vocalist Joe Parella, keyboardist Jozii Cowell, bassist Jon Rodney and drummer Christopher Donofrio — met in middle school and formed Deal Casino in 2013. The Phoenix caught up with Parella, Cowell and Rodney in the afternoon to discuss their humble beginnings, doubt and just how honest music biopics are.
Big stages and crowds of festivals
Emily Rosca: You guys have been playing since 2013, so you guys have been in the industry for a while now. How was Governors Ball — have you guys been here before?
Jon Rodney: It was awesome. I mean it was a bit weird opening it up, not many people, people filing in. No one knows who we are and we’re not used to playing on that big of a stage. It was really weird, looking over and [Cowell] was 100 feet away. It was a bit wacky. It was a lot of thinking the whole time. Usually we get into the groove of auto-pilot and that usually means it’s a better show because you’re very loose, you know. We were loose, but we were trying to get used to a lot of things all at once that we’d never done before. People were telling us our faces were on those megascreens, like that’s weird. A 20-foot version of myself projected across. It was great, but it was definitely wacky. The next time we’ll probably be more prepared for it. Not as wigged-out.
ER: Have you guys done music festivals in the past?
Joe Parella: Yeah, we did Sea.Here.Now, a new festival in our hometown in Asbury Park in New Jersey, last year which was killer. It was half of a hometown show, which was fun. And we did Firefly two years ago, which was kind of similar to this where we were so out of our element, just like, “What’s going on?”
JR: But it’s cool. You’re basically just trying to promote your band to these people who are like, “Who are you?” And it worked. People who come to festivals are here because of that. They paid all that money to take that all in. This kid Ethan wearing all this Tyler, The Creator “Wolfgang Golf” apparel met us before we played and was front row during our set, filming. That’s pretty crazy because we’re a rock band.
ER: Just a fan?
JP: Yeah he just met us today. He was like, “I’ll listen to your music before you play and I’ll get it down.” We’re like, “Okay, we’ll see you in 20 minutes.” So there’s people here that are like that or at a show in New York City. When you’re just playing, it’s a bunch of people who are here to see you and the band, or they’re just waiting for you to impress them. So everyone here has a good attitude. Everyone was cheering after each song. It was cool.
ER: That’s good. Do you guys have any rituals before going into a concert?
Jo Cowell: Chaos.
JP: No. Usually all that happens is like, “Oh, shit, where are my shoes?” It’s not a ritual but it’s the worst with remembering things. Last minute, everything goes to hell but that helps you not think about the show. You’re like, “I need to find my wallet” or just something stupid like that and then it’s like, “Oh, it’s time to go on.”
JR: Chris, our drummer, is kind of, like, the craziest one out of all of us, so he’s always fueling it. It’s like 20 minutes until we go on and he’s bugging out about something irrelevant. It takes our mind off the nerves.
Camryn Rosenstein: What would you guys say influenced you to go into music?
JR: I don’t know if it was much about the influence more than it was a lack of options.
JP: I’m trying to think of when I started. I guess we all kind of have the same story of, like, we’re around it growing up in school. … We all literally grew up together. … It became, “Let’s do our own thing” where we get to make up our own rules. It’s one of those things where we look back and trying to explain it right now, there wasn’t a conscious effort.
JC: You just look up and it’s like, “Oh, here we are.”
JP: But lack of options in the sense of, like, I would never want to do anything else or I could never imagine myself doing anything else. You get influenced as you go on because as you get more into it, you want to educate yourself more, you want to watch a show or you want to … You take in more of it and then it gets you more excited to do it.
JR: Like what we did, moving out and going and learning how to book shows and write your own songs. It’s like going to college, basically. A hands-on technique.
JC: We all tried to go to college but then we all circled back in the end and we’re just like, “Let’s commit.”
Evolving as a band
ER: Was it elementary school you guys started playing together or middle school?
JP: Middle school. Yeah, it was like seventh grade.
ER: Then you guys have grown up together. Then besides the obvious growing up and maturing, what are some ways you’d say things have changed from when you first started to now?
JC: That’s a good way of putting it, growing up. We wrote so much music and put it out there and looking back, we think it’s not that good. But now you just get it all out, then we found what we think is our sound and our vibe, and now it feels like we’re content with where we’re going, so it was a lot of trial and error.
JP: Now it’s on the internet forever. … We’ve taken things off Spotify and then people are like, “What happened to that song?” And you just make people angry. It’s not worth it. … We’re very picky, particular people with everything so with music, the most insecure thing you could do is listen to yourself sing or listen to a drum take that you did or a song that you recorded. Like today we released a song, and I don’t want to hear people’s reactions to it. It’s done. It’s out.
JC: That’s the most difficult thing. Record your voice singing a song and try and listen back to it. That’s so hard, it’s crazy.
ER: So that hasn’t changed at all since you’ve started? You don’t get more used to it?
JR: You do, and you find what you don’t like to hear so it changes the way you sing. Then eventually, that’s what we as a band have found — our sound. Like what [Cowell] said about trial and error. It’s just putting things out, hearing it back, hearing some bad reactions, some good reactions and then you adjust and change.
JP: It’s tough because I’ve never seen a documentary — I’m always in search of one — that actually makes me feel good about what we’re doing as far as, “Okay cool, we’re not the only ones in that situation.” Every documentary we watch, it’s like, “Oh yeah, we picked up the guitar and we were famous.” There’s never the story of, “Yeah, we did this and nothing happened.”
ER: You’re right, you never hear about that.
Moving past self-doubt
CR: That was going to be my next question. Was there ever a moment where you guys doubted yourself?
All of them: Everyday.
CR: But you know, from what you guys said in the past couple of minutes, you have a positive attitude and you keep going, and I think that’s great because a lot of people can’t make it and you guys did. Was there something that kept you going along the way that enforced knowing that this is what you wanted to do?
JP: I think of it, like, what would we do or how would we feel about our music if no one else in the world existed? Truthfully, we might hate some of the songs. We might be like, “I can’t believe we used to do that or sing this way or whatever. But the whole doubt thing, that comes with coming to a festival, seeing all the people and all the trailers that are bigger than you, seeing your name not high up on the bill yet. You’re always trying to — it’s competitive, in a certain way.
ER: It’s politics.
JP: Yeah, it’s politics and it feels like you’re walking to the cool high school party and you want to make sure you’re the popular kid or something. There’s so much to compare to, and people are like that without music, you know, in anything.
JR: That’s everywhere, you know.
JP: People seem like [they] don’t care what anyone thinks of [their] music, you know. Everyone cares. You want people to show up, you want people to know it, so you doubt yourself but then as soon as that happens, it’s met with a good show or a good recording.
Behind the name
ER: Definitely. And I wanted to ask about your name. I’m sure you artists get this all the time, but you guys named yourselves after the beach club in New Jersey. What’s the backstory?
JC: So we’re from North Jersey, so that’s the place down the shore. We don’t know that much about it, so before we moved to Asbury Park, we changed our name and after moving, we were like, “Damn it, this is a terrible name.”
ER: The original name was a terrible one?
JC: No, no, Deal Casino.
ER: What was the original?
JC: (Laughs) I don’t even want to say.
JP: “Something About January.”
CR: I kind of like that.
JC: Oh, come on. You’re lying.
CR: No, my birthday’s in January!
JP: There you go. See, there’s something about January. It’s a very high school band name. Honestly, we decided on Deal Casino out of frustration. Like “The Beatles” isn’t a good band name, it’s just “The Beatles” so you think of it as like, “That’s the sickest band ever.”
JC: It could have a little bit of a story.
JR: We were in a Wendy’s with a list of band names, hashing it out over some spicy chicken mcnuggets and a large fry.
ER: It’s like that scene in “Parks and Recreation” with Andy — they’re constantly changing their band name because it doesn’t sound good.
JC: That’s exactly what it’s like. That’s the ultimate doubt. You’re never happy with your band name.
JP: Like Dave Grohl says he’s unhappy about Foo Fighters.
ER: That’s such a cool name though.
JP: I think it’s always the grass is greener thing. You’re never going to think … like I don’t like my own voice. I don’t like things that I’ll play, for the most part. I like Jimi Hendrix and I like Tyler, The Creator, and I watch them and I’m like, “That’s so good.” Like I said with the documentary thing, we have no one to compare ourselves to in the way, like, “Oh, yeah! Like they get it.”
What documentaries don’t show
JR: Like in the Queen documentary, they just portray the whole thing of “Bohemian Rhapsody” like they went to the studio, they spent an hour and this is it.
ER: That’s the problem with every music biopic because you don’t just show up to a venue, meet this band and suddenly you’re famous. You are right, no one portrays it in an honest way.
JR: But also the director is probably like, “Oh, we have a two-hour movie, how do we get to the good part? The, ‘Oh we played gigs for two people for five years.’”
JP: (Jokingly) And that [struggle is] only going to apply to us. We’re going to be like, “Yes!” and everyone else is going to be like, “Whatever.”
JR: They’re thinking about the consumer. Maybe one day we’ll make a six-hour documentary about the whole thing. Five hours is going to be us playing to zero people for a few years, and the last hour is going to be the good stuff.
JP: One hour per year.
Impersonating Mumford and Sons
CR: What’s one of the craziest stories from playing at a festival or during a show?
ER: Like this morning, we went to Still Woozy’s set and they were telling people to tell whoever you love that you love them because life is short. Someone then just tossed their bra up onto the stage.
ER: Yeah, this morning.
JC: I don’t think we’re there yet.
JP: It’s kind of lame actually. We went to play in Pittsburgh a few years ago. We went to the venue, none of the tickets were sold and it was the day of the show. Also, the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing some big game. We cancelled the show and just went to our hotel room, and we ended up playing on the piano. Then someone thought we were Mumford and Sons and Joe [Cowell], who hadn’t been drinking at all, rolls with it and says, “Yes, we are Mumford and Sons.”
JC: Because in my head, I thought they said, “Do you listen to Mumford and Sons?” Because who would ask that? I couldn’t process it and as I said it, I realized it but then I was like, “Oh, fuck,” and I kept rolling with it.
JR: They took pictures with us, sent them to their kids like, “Oh, we’re with Mumford and Sons!”
JC: We were so deep in it, we couldn’t get out. So we took the picture, she sent it to her son and I was like, “We need to get out of here before her son is like, ‘Mom, you’re an idiot.’” So we [thanked her], ran up to our hotel room, hid and we were like, “We can’t do that again, that was insane.”
Deal Casino is set to perform with The Technicolors at Beat Kitchen (2100 W. Belmont Ave.) June 24. Tickets cost $12 and can be purchased online. The band’s music is available to stream on Apple Music and Spotify.