This article was originally published in the November 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
The Trenton-based Cryptkeeper Five has been marking its 20th anniversary of bringing its punk rock/horror punk/Jersey rock sound to loyal fans here on the East Coast, around the United States, Canada, Europe, and most importantly in Trenton, where it will be performing at the Millhill Basement on Friday, November 23.
That “Trenton Makeage: A Descendents Tribute” concert is being billed as a benefit for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and features two other Trenton bands, School Drugs and Pissed.
The tribute aspect means that bands will give a musical nod to an earlier group, with the Cryptkeepers performing as the Ramones.
The Cryptkeepers has gone through a number of incarnations over the years but has retained the same singer, Johnny Ott, and lead guitarist, Jimmy Ray, for two decades.
The other members of the CK5 are Mikey G. on bass and vocals and D.T. Graves on drums/percussion and vocals. The band just signed with the Virginia label Say-10 Records.
“The Cryptkeeper Five started as a five-piece band, and has been everything from a trio to a seven-piece band,” says Ott. (The band’s name is an homage to classic pop groups from the 1960s such as the Dave Clark Five, and not a reference to the song “The Monster Mash.”)
You can hear tales of Trenton and various growing pains in the CK5’s latest self-released album, “The Stronghold,” which came out in 2017. Ott says the theme of growing up ties the project together.
Keeping the fires stoked under a band that writes and plays its own original music has been a struggle, but Ott says area venues have helped fuel those fires.
One such spot is the basement at the Mill Hill Saloon in Trenton, where rockers, artists, and other members of the underground cultural community come out to play and support one another.
“I love the basement at Mill Hill, they’re pretty open-minded, it’s a great crowd, and everyone just likes good music,” Ott says. “Everyone is respectful of all styles, and we’ve played with all kinds of bands there, everything from hip hop artists to acoustic bands.”
His comments reflect some experience of other venues. “We played Europe last year. We did six shows in Germany, as well as shows in London and Liverpool, England; Belfast, Northern Ireland; Wales; and Canada,” Ott says. “That’s one of our goals — to keep doing this, getting in front of foreign crowds.”
“That’s the upside of digital music — it puts you together with crowds (around the world) who can find out about you and hear your music,” he continues.
As much as the digital music phenomenon has enhanced the CK5’s career, Ott muses that it has also taken a certain something away from the listening experience.
“With digital the magic of listening to an album is lost,” he says. “Whereas with vinyl I’ll sit on my couch and really listen to it, instead of the music just being in the background.”
That’s one of the reasons the CK5 released “The Stronghold” on vinyl as well as other formats.
“The Stronghold” opens with “Mad Dog 20/20 No. 2,” a kind of E Street Band-meets-Roy Orbison sound, featuring straight-forward guitars and drums, accented with glockenspiel.
“We love the E Street Band, and when we recorded we went a little crazy,” Ott says. “We wanted to go for a very retro Bruce Springsteen/Tom Petty sound and feel mixed with a Jersey sound.”
The CK5 has been around long enough to know exactly what it wants in a project’s sound, and the group was fortunate to be able to hire Brian Lucey to master the album at his Magic Garden Mastering facilities in Los Angeles.
“Brian has mastered some of my favorite albums by artists like the Black Keys, Cage the Elephant, Brandy Carlisle, Delta Spirit, Dr. John, etc.,” Ott says. “We knew we wanted a very natural rock and roll sound, not overly processed, and we felt Brian was right for our album. We’re really happy with how it came out.”
Also integral to the sound of “The Stronghold” is Sean Glonek, who co-produced, recorded/engineered, and mixed the album at SRG Studios in Hamilton Square.
Ott, 41, grew up on the border of Trenton and Hamilton. His father was a warehouse manager; his mother worked at a variety of jobs, including collections.
He attended Steinert High School (Class of 1994), where he met guitarist Jimmy Ray, and the two started a band in the 10th grade. Ott then went to Mercer County Community College to delve into his love for and natural talent in visual art.
“I still paint and draw and do all the CK5’s posters and albums covers,” Ott says. His day job is as a delivery person for Sherwin-Williams.
The urge to start a band came after attending his second live rock show: the Ramones at City Gardens. “It was all over after that,” Ott says. “That concert changed the direction of my life: I went from wanting to be an art teacher to wanting to be in a punk rock band.”
“City Gardens closed down when I was about 19, but in those (intervening) years, I must have seen something like 80 shows there,” he says. “I saw everyone, such crazy bands, and it was at such a young age that it changed everything for me.
“My parents were so cool about driving me to City Gardens. I don’t know why they did that, and if I had kids, I certainly wouldn’t do it now.”
As far as balancing work at Sherwin-Williams with rock life, Ott says, “We all have day jobs, but we all try to find work that is flexible enough to let us do what we do. (When you have a day job) it makes you appreciate how great it is to get out and play music. My thinking is, ‘I do this so I can go out and rock.’”
One side of Ott is obviously a rocker, but the other loves his down time, living quietly in the Sylvan Glen section of Bordentown Township with his wife, Leigh-Ann, who works at Grounds For Sculpture.
If there is an anthem song on “The Stronghold,” something a band might open or close a show with, it’s “Ignite,” with its hard rocking guitars, driving tempo, and crank-up-the-volume chorus.
With all the political upheaval going on, “Ignite” could be a protest song, but Ott says it’s much more personal: the theme is basically, “I’m still rocking.”
The Cryptkeeper Five, Mill Hill Basement, 300 South Broad Street. Friday, November 23, 7:30 p.m. $8. 609-989-1600 or www.themillhill.com.