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My Chemical Fancast

Neil Sabatino (Pencey Prep) Interview

Feb 17, 2021

Neil Sabatino, former guitarist in Pencey Prep, lead singer of Fairmont, and founder of Mint400 Records, was gracious enough to listen to our Pencey Prep episode and answer any and all questions we had! He was able to tell us some incredible anecdotes from his time in the band, from the recording process to his thoughts on the record today.

My Chemical Fancast: Can you tell us your story of how you ended up in Pencey? 

Neil Sabatino: So I was in a punk band that played a lot with Frank's band Sector 12, he knew me for a couple years because I would book his band on shows and I always was the business person for my band band at the time. He heard I left that band and gave me a call to see if I wanted to join Pencey Prep like a month or two after he had started it. I was friends with Frank and his bandmate in Sector 12 Bruno so I was happy to join because at the time I was not in a band. 


This episode (of podcast This Was The Scene) covers when I left the band in August 2001 to start the band Fairmont. It’s a little long but it’s basically the catalyst that lead to the band ending. I was in the band from summer 2000 through summer 2001. By that time we had written all of Heartbreak In Stereo, we had also started work on the second Pencey Prep album, which would have had the songs Home, Heroin Slow, Rebuilding Home, and Lock On The Second Floor Door. The second two I just ended up making different versions of and putting them on Fairmont’s first album. Once I left the band had been itching to be a little bit heavier so they wrote Attention Reader, Death of The Lionheart and a few others within the 9 months before they officially broke up. What led to the actual final shows was Tim was having knee problems and could not tour or play drums for extended periods of time. Frank had also been playing in My Chemical Romance for months by that point and Hambone was asked to join Sleep Station so it just made sense to call it quits then. Frank, Hambone and Shaun also did a short lived Pencey reunion as I Am A Graveyard with Ray Toro on guitar and Frank just sang. I believe that was only for a few shows or one show because MCR had started to take off and they were the opener for at least one MCR show in NJ at club Krome. Hambone and Shaun played together a little in a band that later formed called The Hostage a few years later. Then Hambone joined Fairmont for 2 albums (Hell Is Other People and Wait & Hope). After that Hambone joined Frank for some touring with Leathermouth. That’s been the extent of collaborations.


MCF: How did you decide on the cover art for the album?

NS: We actually had this really great painting of a robot that was supposed to be the cover, it was a piece I made that was hanging in my kitchen but the owner of Eyeball thought it looked too close to The Get Up Kids album that had come out a year earlier and told us to come up with something different. I think I brought like 4 or 5 drawings to Frank and he picked the one he liked best. I definitely did it rather quickly and didn’t give much thought to it. We basically only had a few days to figure the situation out.


MCF: There's some confusion among fans regarding who wrote which lyrics. Would you be able to shed light on who crafted the lyrics and/or what that writing process was like?

NS: The very first songs that were Pencey Prep songs were 8th Grade and The Secret Goldfish. Those were kind of stripped down and really raw on the original demo which was called “Trying To Escape The Inevitable” (We liked that name, hence using it later on as a song title). The original demo has no lead guitar parts and the whole ending of Secret Goldfish didn’t come about until later when I joined. Those two were written by Frank as Sector 12 was ending. That first version of Secret Goldfish had Bruno Rocha from Sector 12 singing on it because originally Frank didn’t really want to sing.

Next we did 2 songs in the studio after we had been together for about 4 months, which were Yesterday and Lloyd Dobbler. Yesterday was just a 2 chord punk song before we started working on it as a band but that also was all Frank. Lloyd Dobbler was written by Hambone but he couldn’t really play it well so on the album I played all the guitars on it and Shaun just added some piano. I would say all the piano was written 50% by me and 50% by Frank which is why occasionally it overlaps and plays the same things as the guitar does on the album.

The first tracks I brought to the band were Ten Rings and 19, which I co-wrote the lyrics with Frank. Usually I would come up with the chorus or pre-chorus and he would flesh out the verses. Early versions of Ten Rings were weird. 19 spawned from the piano part which I wrote at a practice and it’s mostly lyrics about a break up I was going through at the time. Ten Rings was more about Frank’s situation with an ex that cheated on him but was still keeping tabs on him. I think we both fictionalized parts of each song to make them better. 

Don Quixote, PS Don’t Write and Florida Plates were three of the Hambone songs that he wrote when he was younger but they were completely restructured music wise as he wrote them originally just on an acoustic guitar and we now had a five piece band playing them. I know Frank and I consciously wanted to have that At The Drive In playing back forth lead type thing going on with the guitars.

The last songs we finished were all musically written by me: Trying To Escape The Inevitable, Home, Heroin Slow, but Trying to Escape was Hambones lyrics about a situation a friend of his was in and yes that’s Hambone doing the talking part. Heroin Slow was all Frank’s lyrics, we used to jokingly tell him it sounded like he was saying Carl Winslow (From the show Family Matters)  in the chorus. Then Home was again Frank’s verses and my chorus lyrics. But let me tell you, I believe that is the most personal song he has ever written, if you knew his whole situation that song was his story at 19. We had two other very complete songs that never got recorded. One had no title but was heavy like Trying To Escape The Inevitable and the other was called Lock On The Second Floor Door and was the 3rd song I was singing with Pencey in addition to Fat & Alone and Rebuilding Home. We had 2 other songs that got thrown away much earlier that didn’t fit with the rest of the set but that was about all we wrote in that first year.


MCF: Who recorded the spoken part in "Trying to Escape the Inevitable?”

NS: That was Hambone. John Naclerio who owned the recording studio did the backing on Secret Goldfish. Bruno Rocha from Sector 12 who was in Pencey for a few months is the backing on Yesterday.

I am the backing vocal on the chorus of 19 and I sing Fat & Alone, Frank is the backing vocal on Fat & Alone, yes the high parts too. The Cartman impression at the end is Tim the drummer. At the top of the song the “Fat & Alone” that you guys say sounds Canadian or something is me - my wife is from Minnesota so I kind of have that Norweigan twang sometimes. The guy talking that says 5/29/01 take 1 is Antonio Valenti who owned the studio where we did Fat & Alone, Heroin Slow, Home, Rebuilding Home and Secret Goldfish Acoustic.


MCF: Were there any bands or albums that served as a main source of inspiration for Heartbreak?

NS: We seriously had like 10 records on repeat for every single drive and they were:

The Get Up Kids – Something To Write Home About
At The Drive In – Relationship Of Command

Saves The Day – Stay What You Are

System Of A Down – Toxicity

Dashboard Confessional – Swiss Army Romance

Hot Rod Circuit- If I Knew What I knew Then

The Anniversary – Designing A Nervous Breakdown

Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American

Weezer – Pinkerton

The Get Up Kids – Seven Minute Mile

We listened to other stuff but these discs were constantly played for every drive to anywhere and on like 10 mixtapes that made the circles around the band. I was into slightly more indie and older stuff like The Pixies. Hambone loved The Replacements, Husker Du and The Misfits but Frank usually vetoed that stuff and I think even threw Hambone’s Misfits CD out of the van on the one tour. Tim loved metal so we would put in the System of A Down CD to appease him and Shaun always liked the more obscure emo stuff like Knapsack, Mineral and Jimmy Eat World (who were obscure then).  That list above though was what we all agreed on and that was mostly what Frank was listening to aside from punk stuff like Bouncing Souls, Screeching Weasel, etc.


MCF: Can you tell us about your songwriting process/thoughts behind the masterpiece, “Fat and Alone?” How did this gem come to be?

NS: I think Shaun and Frank were chanting Fat & Alone and it was a directed insult at someone and I just thought the phrase was funny and I was dabbling in singing my first couple of songs at the time and it just kind of happened. We definitely thought it was funny and pretty catchy. We also loved the idea of a hidden track. However fast forward 20 years and it’s kind of insensitive and immature and the guys wanted to leave it off of the album going forward. Which, if it was perceived as an insult towards anyone, I am on board with it not being out there. You can find it if you really want to on Youtube. When I personally sat down to write it, it was actually more me thinking of how I was a fat little teenager and was more self-deprecating, but I was pretty thin when I was in Pencey so who was going to believe me? For any big boned people who take it on as an anthem, I’m right there with you, it was written by a fat kid for fat kids. I have been on a diet since 1997 so that I can stay an average weight.

MCF: Can you talk about your experience recording this album, from the basement to the studio?

NS: Well, we did it in pieces basically. When we first started we knew we were working towards creating this album “Heartbreak In Stereo”. I don’t even know how we came up with that name, it’s like it just appeared to us and we were looking to make 10 songs that reflected North NJ teenage heartbreak in the year 2000.  We were all miserable single dudes who played music non-stop. We had like 7 hour practice sessions and really got so much better in a short period of time. By December 2000 we had played about 5 shows and thought Yesterday was the most ready to record and that Lloyd Dobbler would be an easy just throw it in there if we have time type track.

That initial 2 song demo was what we pitched to get signed but we basically told them, with or without you we are making this 10 song record. Originally we were supposed to be on Frank’s dad’s label Black Ball Music (He worked there, didn’t own it), which was in California, but we were too impatient to wait to see if they were going to fund it and we moved on. This is why a lot of the early promo stuff says Black Ball Music on it. In May we went to a local studio to do the demos of the stuff we knew would not be part of the album but we wanted to get them on tape, that was Heroin Slow, Home, Rebuilding Home, Fat & Alone, and Secret Goldfish Acoustic. By June we decided we were finishing the album no matter what at the same studio we did the 2 song demo at (Nada Recording). We finished the other 8 songs rather quickly and thanks to Alan Douches at West West Side Mastering everything we had recorded, 15 songs all sound cohesive because of the job he did.

I have been in many bands over the years and I can tell you the work ethic and how we constructed that one record was very intricate and more well thought out than something usually associated with teenagers and some early 20 somethings. We really cared about every detail of the recording and the story and vibe and what the listener is going to take away from it.


MCF: Since we are an MCR podcast, what was your impression of My Chemical Romance in their early days? 

NS: When I first heard “Vampires Will Never Hurt You” I was so damn mad that it wasn’t something I had come up with. At the time when those guys had first started I had been kicked out of Pencey Prep and hated the owner of Eyeball Records with every fiber of my being. But I think by 2003 Hambone called me to wish me happy birthday and I had also run into Frank at a show soon after that and we all put any hate behind us (not for Eyeball though, I still hate that fucking creep). I was really happy for Frank, I had known him since he was 17. I knew Mikey because he hung around with Pencey when I was in the band and the other guys were super nice.

I met everyone at Hambone’s house at a Thanksgiving thing early on right as they were about to get signed or were signed. I got to open up for them at the Loop Lounge, they played acoustic at like 2am. They also had let my band hang out back stage at a show in like 2005. Every time I ever ran into any of those guys they were always so nice and whenever I read something like how the band did something pro-LGBQT, pro-feminist, anti-racist it made me proud of the fact there is some small connection from my band to their band through Pencey Prep. 

When they first started I remember hearing Headfirst For Halos on the college radio station and I really understood what kids saw in them. They had this really raw hyperactivity about them and in their music that was quite viral. The thing was at that time most of Jersey was just punk and power pop, they were different because they were taking like the cool goth elements of The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, and punk-ifying it.


MCF: What's one (or two) of your favorite memories from your time in the band?

NS: When I first joined the band all of us were single. We would play in Frank’s basement until his Mom made us leave, like it got past the 9pm curfew and we’d head over to this basketball court that the band referred to as Boystown and we’d play a game or two and then head to the North Arlington diner. The end of summer 2000 and that same routine for a few weeks is what Heartbreak In Stereo is all about. The core essence of the album was formulated all in that few weeks. 

MCF: You’ve continued to play in bands and work in the industry. With that experience under your belt, how do you feel about the record now so many years later?

NS: I still think it’s a fun record. I couldn’t write that record without having been in that place and time with those guys. When you are in a band it’s total compromise of visions that everyone else has for what it should be. At the time I was dying to move on and do my own thing and I think the other guys too wanted to eventually branch out and do their own things without compromise. But looking back that experience and hearing it now, I get why people have latched onto it as kind of a cult record.

I think we weren’t idiots or anything, we said some things and had some ideas that were very poetically stated. I think that is why the whole Catcher In The Rye thing works so well for this release, it’s connection to a book about lost innocence and it’s a record about exactly that from three perspectives. From Frank the teenager who just had his heart ripped out by his first big love. Hambone’s quiet reflection on his younger years in songs like Florida Plates (which by the way is supposed to be about two kids with their parents on vacation who meet on the Jersey Shore) or Lloyd Dobbler which is specifically about getting friend zoned by that love that you are willing to stick around for even if it’s unrequited. And me, I was just dumped by my 2nd girlfriend, a love of my life and wrote from that perspective of nothing is ever going to work out whether you are a young or old. That record was one giant therapy session and seriously it’s so honest, genuine and heartfelt and that’s why people still listen to it. At least that’s what I hope.


MCF: How did you guys make the decision to re-release the record?

NS: If you listen to Casual Interactions I think Hambone made it clear he really wanted to have it out there again as it was one of the major things he contributed to in his music career. I think we just had this unwritten rule that we all had to agree if we were going to do anything with it for the future. Well it just kind of all finally worked out and we all agreed on how and when to get it all back out there.


MCF: Are you surprised at the response Pencey Prep still gets 20 years later?

NS: I do feel like the album does feel like that era, so I am surprised that people are still listening this much to it. But to me it also feels classic and it’s like opening up a photo album to summer of 2000. It’s nostalgia and with things like Spotify I’m glad a whole new generation gets to hear it and hop in that time machine with us.


MCF: What are you up to currently?

NS: Fairmont is the band I have been doing since the day I left Pencey Prep, 20 years this August. We have 11 albums, a bunch of EP’s and a bunch of compilation tracks. Pretty much the acoustic demos on the first Fairmont album were all in the running to be Pencey Prep songs, except the songs that are about Pencey Prep. We’re working on a Retrospective of the last 10 years for release later this year.

In 2007 I started Mint 400 Records to release Fairmont’s albums and it’s grown from there to over 370 releases and over 100 bands on our roster. That’s mostly what I focus on currently. I produce a bunch of the bands on the label, do album art and edit and direct videos, so the label keeps me busy.

My art is available on instagram @nsabatinoart and I’m available for hire for illustration and graphic design.

Aside from that I’m a special education Art and Graphic Design teacher with two daughters, a wife and dog.