Interviews

Original Leeway Drummer George Saso Motroni on the Band’s Early Days

If you know me, you know how much I adore Leeway. They were not only local heroes for me growing up in Queens, NY in the '80s and '90s, they were also one of the bands that got me into this kind of music in the first place. In my never-ending quest to help tell the group's complete story by the musicians who have been in its lineup over the years, today brings me to George Saso Motroni, Leeway's original drummer.

Of all the guys who have been part of Leeway since its inception in the early '80s, George is perhaps the ex-member with the lowest profile since he hasn't played in any other bands since parting ways with them during the Reagan era. I'd like to thank my buddy Joe Songco of Outburst for connecting me with George and also helping out with some photos from his personal archive.

Are you an Astoria native? Tell me a bit about your upbringing.

I was born in Manhattan but my family moved to Astoria when I was two. I have kind of a weird background. I am mostly Cuban with a little bit of Italian. The Italians moved to Cuba in the early 1800s and integrated with the population of Cuba, then family came here in the '50s. Here’s what’s weird... my father’s night job was as the lead singer of a Cuban charanga band named Tipica Novel. His day job was starting in the mail room of E.F. Hutton on Wall Street. He worked his way up to become the Vice President of a later iteration of the company. Tipica Novel produced 12 albums and were quite popular in Latin America and they played every venue you could ever think of in NYC, you can find their stuff on YouTube. They played the Audubon Ball Room, Madison Square Garden, etc.

This had a great effect on me as a child because I was listening to American music on the radio and hearing Cuban music at night. The whole band would leave their equipment at my house so I would experiment all the time with the instruments. My father left when I was three. I think it made me bond more in later years with [Leeway guitarist] A.J. [Novello] and [Leeway vocalist] Eddie Sutton because we were all in the same boat.

George's dad is on the far right on the album cover above.

When did get into hardcore/punk/metal, and who were some of the bands that had a huge impact on you back then?

I grew up with A.J. Novello, who lived around the corner. We played football together and hung out all the time. At one point, he turned me on to music that I had never heard before. He introduced me to the Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols... basically punk music that gave way to other genres. It blew my mind, and soon after, A.J. made the suggestion that we should start a band. As far as influences, you name it, you got it. I was inundated with music from every genre you can think of, from Zeppelin to Cuban Afro music, to disco, to opera. Also, as far as opera, my grandmother rented an apartment to the opera singer Teresa Strata upstairs, so I would hear it all the time when she would invite me in.

Left to right: Foti Papoutsakis, Saso, George D'Errico (Outburst), Nicky Kastanos, Joe Songco (Outburst), St. John's Prep. Graduation Day, 1987.

When did you start playing drums and who were some of your influences?

I just want to clear something up, I started playing drums with A.J. on guitar in B Studios in Manhattan. I didn’t have a kit, so I had no options. I want to be honest and say I was the worst fucking drummer in the history of the universe for years. Later, my father bought me a kit. A.J. started getting better equipment and we started rehearsing in my 4’x6' bedroom. He got a huge stack, either VOX or Marshall, and it was about 12inches from my head when we would rehearse [laughs]. We rehearsed for months, almost five days a week. We got better, then, we started looking for other musicians, but I still really, really sucked. I was fast, but mechanical and boring, doing the same damn drum roll in every song.

To be even more honest, I have to say in hindsight, that I was pretty horrible as a drummer up until I left the band. Right at the end, we played CBGBs and I had been experimenting with triplets and other off-beat rhythms that I started learning by listening to John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. During the CBs show, I just relaxed, stoped thinking so hard about what I was doing, and just went with my instincts and let every thing flow. I would go off-beat and do different rhythms and then go back to the song. I remember A.J. turning around on stage and giving me a look that said “what the fuck are you doing” but I would come back in time and he would love it. 

If you want to know what I’m talking about, listen to one of my favorite songs as a drummer: "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin. It’s fucking amazing. Bonham plays the music with bars of 4/4 - 2/4 following the vocals, the guitar and bass play in cycles of 3/8ths. It’s absolutely mind-blowing because it’s almost like Bonham is completely playing another song but it keeps coming back and seamlessly meshing with the guitar and bass. I must have listened to that song a million times. The thing about it all, is that I quit the band about three weeks later.

OK, but let's go back to the origin story of Leeway. The Unruled was the name you guys used in its earliest days, but what would you say were the band’s biggest influences when you first started jamming?

We started with punk, then we got into metal like Metallica, and we fused the two. It was a very unique sound and that’s why I think that we had a lot of appeal. What really put us over the top is that Eddie Sutton was absolutely brilliant as a frontman. I mean that he was a genius. He had such a connection to the crowd and he was fearless on stage. It was true magnetism, and he coupled it with really, really good lyrics. When I met Eddie, he was a teenager, but he had the vocabulary of a college graduate. He was also one of the most naturally funny people I had ever met.

Leeway at the Right Track Inn, Long Island, NY, 1986. (Photo: Krissy Bedell)

Why was the name changed to Leeway and who came up with the name?

I have no idea who named it The Unruled, and A.J. came around to my apartment and said, “the new name of the band is Leeway." I said, "OK."

What was it like working Don Fury on the demos?

It’s really strange but I don’t remember the details of those days. Don Fury sounds familiar, but to tell you the truth, I don’t know who the fuck that is. As far as the demos, I have no idea of which one is which or even if I played on them. Here’s something funny... with all the songs we played, I didn’t know the titles to any of them. A.J. would turn around on stage and yell out a song title, I would look at him like I was lost, and then he would play the first four bars, and I would know what I was doing. I’m pretty sure it pissed him off a lot [laughs].

Do you have any interesting stories about the Enforcer demo? 

Well, the first demo we did was thanks to my dad. He rented out a professional recording studio where his band would record their albums and he paid for it. We had three hours to record. It was a hilarious situation. A.J. had his stomach in knots and was sick. Just before we went in to record, he opened up a window in the hallway and puked 10 stories down [laughs]. When we started to set up, I noticed that my snare drum belt was broke. I was cursing while I tried to fix it with duct tape. The studio engineer told me not to worry about it, that he could fix it from the console, and kept asking me what I would like the drum to sound like. I told him I want it to sound like a snap, or a gunshot, but it came over as only a thud.

While this was happening, a previous salsa recording musician was still in the studio with us. He was a conga player. He looked at me and said that I could use his setup. His setup was two conga drums and a cowbell. He stayed in the studio to watch us play our first song, after he heard 2 seconds worth, his eyes got big and he ran out of the studio [laughs]. I guess he thought we were going to play salsa. 

When exactly did you and the band go separate ways and what happened?

It was really frustrating. When we started the band, it was all shits and giggles. We were having a crazy amount of fun. But the common music cliché is that then people start arguing, maybe drugs, and then things get really crazy and it isn’t fun anymore. What happened with me was that the frustration was building up. We played a show, and my bass pedal broke. I can’t play a show without a bass drum pedal. I got so frustrated that I grabbed the bass drum pedal and threw it onto the middle of the stage. I yelled at A.J. and Eddie that it was broke and I needed to borrow a pedal from another band. A.J. and Eddie looked at me like I had a dick on my forehead but they contacted the other bands. No one would lend my a pedal (perhaps they thought I was going to break theirs as well).

For the next songs, I was literally kicking the bass drum with my foot. I was furious and it didn’t help that A.J. and Eddie were looking at me like I was fucking up the songs. The next gig was at CBs and I didn’t bring my kit because Eddie told me that the band before us would let me use theirs. I get to the show, we’re about to go on stage, and the all-female band that we are borrowing the kit from, is just off stage. The drummer of the band comes up to me and she asks, “where is your snare drum”? I have no idea of what she’s talking about and I tell her so. She then starts yelling, “I told Eddie that you could use my kit but you had to bring your own fucking snare drum!" I go backstage and ask Eddie, “what the fuck is going on, this girl is going crazy on me.  She said that she told you, that I had to bring my own snare!" Then Eddie says, "don’t worry I’ll handle it."  Eddie goes to talk to the girl. I know damn well that Eddie can sell ketchup popsicles to a woman with white gloves. He comes back and tells me that everything’s alright and I can use her snare. I come out to set up, and this girl comes over and she’s still pissed. She brings over her snare drum and it is fucking amazing. It's a brand new Ludwig deep snare drum that is gorgeous. I know that this thing is her prized possession.

Yikes! What happened next?

I take the drum, put it on the mount, punch a hole through the bottom because I didn’t align it right (but I didn’t tell her because she would have had a stroke). It didn’t matter because that was the best-sounding snare that I had ever played in my life. We go into our first song and se’s off stage right, about four feet from me, and she is glaring at me like she wants to kill me. She’s concentrating on the snare, I guess to see how hard I’m hitting it. I’m hitting the snare softly because she has a look that is scaring the shit out of me. I don’t think anyone remembers but back when I was drumming, I used to hit the skins real, real fucking hard. I’m playing the snare as lightly and gently as I can, but this girl still keeps glaring at me like I am murdering her baby. I finally get pissed, and I say to myself “fuck her, I’m going to do what I want!" 

I then proceed to beat the living shit out of that drum and all the other ones. I can see her out of the corner of my eye, and she is stamping her foot and cursing like a demon, which makes me pound the drums all the more harder. Then she starts throwing shit at me, and in return, I start bouncing drum sticks off of my symbols aiming at her eyes. It was a great show, I played my ass off, but it was frustrating as hell. The funny thing is that after the show I made out with that girl drummer for about half an hour [laughs]. The final straw came when I was informed by some band member that we had a show on the upcoming weekend and I had to bring my own kit. I told them that a didn’t have a bass pedal and that my snare drum belt was broke and that I had no money to buy any replacements. I kept reminding them that I couldn’t play with my kit during the week. No one said anything and time ticked by.

Finally, they said “we have a show tomorrow," and I said, "what the fuck am I supposed to do, I have no kit?" I became so fucking frustrated that I said that I quit the band. They thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. So, I left the band in a fury. Here’s where it get’s interesting. About two weeks later I go to A.J. and I said I’m sorry and I want to rejoin the band. He tells me that he has to talk to the other members. A day later I am in his hallway and he tells me that Jose Ochoa (our original bassist) wants to talk to me in the hallway alone before I rejoin the band. Jose then informs me, that I can be back in the band on one condition, that I go outside to the other members of the band, and people looking on, and that I personally apologize to each individual band, including him, and ask if they will take me back. Now the thing is, that I guess Jose came out with this plan because he was on a power trip. The only problem is, that Jose Ochoa, had to be the worst fucking bassists I have ever heard in my life. Everyone in the band would talk about it when he wasn’t around.

During rehearsals and shows, he had absolutely no rhythm and no timing and he would hit wrong notes all the time. After I left the band, I heard that Mackie [Jayson] or, Pokey [Mo] who replaced me, would get up in the middle of a rehearsal and point Jose’s amplifier at the wall because they couldn’t take it. Well, I walked out of A.J.'s hallway, and Jose had this shit-eating grin on his face. Then I turned to him when we were outside and I said, “GO FUCK YOURSELF, I’M NOT APOLOGIZING TO YOU OR ANYONE ELSE!" That was my end with the band. Here’s another funny story. The next day I run into A.J. and I say hello and what’s going on, and I tell him, “you know, you guys are going to kick Jose out of the band within weeks just because he’s horrible and he sucks," and they did.

Did you follow Leeway’s career throughout the rest of the original band’s run?

I did follow their career but it was one roller coaster ride after another. A.J. would tell me that “this was going on which was great!," and then two days later he would be depressed and tell me “this is what happened." I’m good friends with A.J. and Eddie, and I’m friendly with [Leeway guitarist] Mike Gibbons, but Jose can go fuck himself [laughs]. A.J. is a great guy, super talented, and I love him. Eddie is a dynamo, he’s wrestled with his demons and conquered them. When I met Eddie as a teenager, I was staggered. Here was this kid that had movie star looks, was really, really funny, full of life, an intellectual and the most fearless and amazing guy on stage. All at the age of 18.

Towards the end of my run, he started to experiment with drugs and his whole personality changed. Instead of the vivacious energy-filled guy I knew that would totally draw everyone into his world with humor, he became sullen and withdrawn and he would miss practices.

I love Eddie, and I am grateful that he conquered his demons. He’s a really, really good guy.

Eddie Sutton (Photo: J.C. Carey)

Musically speaking, what did you do after Leeway and do you still play today?

I did absolutely nothing with music ever again. I went to college for theatre, and then I went to work on Wall Street for 25 years. Then I got my best friend, Elkin Yuen, a job with my father, and then they were both killed on 9-11 while I ran around outside of the building like a chicken with no head.

I'm so sorry to hear that. What else are up to these days?

I'm a stay-at-home dad, pretty much retired, and I fucking hate Republicans and Conservatives. Trump is the biggest fucking criminal and conman that ever lived. I can’t stand him and I can’t stand people that don’t know that opinions and facts aren’t the same thing. It’s amazing to me that so many middle-class Republicans have bought into the idea that he gives a flying fuck about them. They’re voting against their own self interests. Couple that with the moronic and lunatic faction of the Republican party comprised by Evangelicals and Tea Party members, and you have the perfect storm of brain damage.

Left to right: Joe Songco (Outburst), Saso, and Nicky Kastanos, circa 2012.

What’s your favorite Leeway song?

The only title I remember is "Rise and Fall," so maybe that’s the one.

Tagged: leeway

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