The rich music scene of 1980s Hoboken is one of the most creative and potent timeframes in New Jersey artistic history. Mile Square City featured a community of musicians who supported and collaborated with each other. Rent was relatively affordable. The once-iconic club Maxwell’s set up shop in 1978 to feature both local bands as well as a diverse mix of punk and indie bands touring the area.
The Cucumbers, co-founded by Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried, were one of the most intriguing bands to develop during that timeframe. The band’s oeuvre demonstrates a diverse range of styles and songs that they fostered throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
The husband and wife collaborators later relocated to Millburn to raise their children. Although Shoshkes and Fried focused on family, music always remained present. The Cucumbers may have stopped touring and playing, but they never truly disappeared.
If you head down to Asbury Park this weekend, you’ll catch the reunited Cucumbers and have a rare opportunity to hear their diverse and infectious sound. They’ll be playing at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, January 14 as part of the Light of Day Musicians on a Mission show at The Saint.
New Jersey Next had a chance to speak with Deena Shoshkes about the band’s history, their music development, and how this reunion came about.
The rise of The Cucumbers
“Hoboken was a great community,” recalled Shoshkes. “You’d always run into someone on Washington Street. The Bongos were our big brothers.”
But it all got started when Shoshkes and Fried were students at Brown University. “Jon would have friends come over to jam, and I didn’t want to just sit and watch,” Shoskes said. “I picked up a guitar and started plunking out a few notes by ear. I was sort of a naïve player.”
Shoshkes, however, played a major role in “My Boyfriend,” one of The Cucumbers’ earliest hits. “These were the typewriter days. I wrote something between a poem and a journalistic entry,” she said. “And Jon saw it on top of my desk. He picked out his four favorite bars, played the chords and set it to music.”
The curious connection between The Cucumbers and Public Enemy
While Soshkes and Fried have served as core members of the band, a collection of talented musicians have weaved in and out of the Cucumbers’ history. “Everybody brought something special and wonderful,” said Soshkes. The current — and the most consistent — line-up includes drummer and Maplewood resident Yuergen Renner as well as bass player and South Orange resident John Williams. “Everybody in those days played in three or four bands. I still do,” she added.
Between 1984-1985, Brian Hargrove played bass for the band. He’d later change his name to Brian Hardgroove and become the bass player for Public Enemy. “Brian is currently producing a solo album by The B-52s’ Fred Schneider,” said Soshkes. “He called me and Jon to come sing backing vocals on it.”
To see the entire list of the musicians who have played with The Cucumbers, you can view their thorough breakdown on their website’s bio page.
The Cucumbers have produced both impressive original songs as well as notable covers. (A video for their striking version of Elvis’ “All Shook Up” is above.) The influences and sounds seem to span 1960s pop with echoes of The Talking Heads, Big Star, The B-52s and The dbs.
The relationship between Fried’s and Shoshkes’ guitar playing is particularly interesting. As opposed to the more traditional division between lead guitar and rhythm guitar, the duo often wrap their guitar playing around each other which creates unique layers of melody and — at times — subtle dissonance.
“He’s very patient and an incredible rhythm player,” Shoshkes said of Fried. “When we started out, he supplied the body of music and I would twang around on top of it until I learned enough chords. He could play something that was rhythmic and melodic and make it sparkle.”
In a 1987 review, New York Times music critic Jon Pareles described Shoshkes’ vocal contribution to the band’s sound:
“As the songs kick ahead, Ms. Shoshkes’ voice makes them distinctive. She has the airy sweetness of a 1960’s girl-group singer, but where the girl groups pledged submissive, eternal love, Ms. Shoshkes stands up for her own prerogatives: ‘Don’t get me wrong, I like you fine/But part of me must always be mine,’ she sings in ‘Just Don’t Tell Me What to Do.’ There’s a danger that such bare-faced songs could turn cute or cynical, but the Cucumbers rarely succumb. More often, they’re both direct and artful – and as sincere as a smart pop band gets.”The reunion
The Cucumbers started to spend a lot more time together as they worked to digitize their album collection. “We decide to put the band back together to celebrate and let people know about it,” said Shoshkes. In addition, Rent Party founder Chris Dickson encouraged the band to play live at one of the organization’s shows. That reunion took place in 2016.
Shoshkes credits studio engineer Scott Anthony — who also does sound for Rent Party shows — for helping the band digitize their collection. “We wanted them to sound as close to the 80s sound as possible,” she said.
The digitized “The Fake Doom Years” (2016) is made up of three of the band’s albums: “Who Betrays Me and Other Happier Songs,” “All Shook Up” and “Fresh Cucumbers.”
In 2017, the band released instrumental versions, “The Fake Doom Years (1983 – 1986) [Instrumentals].” “A music publisher asked if we had instrumentals for our songs,” said Shoshkes. She explained that she now always records an instrumental version of her current songs for potential use on television or film.
The Campfire Flies and more
Shoshkes and Fried are also focusing their energies on their new band, The Campfire Flies, which is an ensemble of six musicians. The couple is joined by Matt Davis of The Thousand Pities as well as John and Toni Baumgartner from Speed the Plough, and Ed Seifert from Ed Seifert and the Stimulus Package. Of course, there is more history. The Baumgartners were in a previous band called The Trypes who played with The Cucumbers at the famed Danceteria.
The new band will then play Rent Party in Maplewood on Friday, March 9.
“We’re a family of interconnected bands and we enjoy playing with each other,” Shoshkes said.