Hair Magic is a Highland Park-based punk rock trio featuring Rutgers alum Jen Rector on guitar and vocals, Christine Espiritu on bass, and New Brunswick Music Scene Archive founder Christie Lutz on drums. The band released its second EP in April and tonight (Nov. 18) plays its final gig of 2023 at the Old Franklin Schoolhouse in Metuchen. The trio sat down with our music reporter Bennett Kelly last Tuesday at Pino’s in Highland Park and discussed the band’s origins, influences and what’s next.
Bennett Kelly: All right, Hair Magic, when and where was your first performance as a band?
Jen Rector: It was at Pino’s. Six years ago maybe?
Christine Espiritu: In June.
Jen Rector: It was in June. And it was definitely at Pino’s. But who did we play with?
Christine Espiritu: Was it an RGD show?
Christie Lutz: It was Gary [Kaplan]’s birthday I think.
Jen Rector: Oh yeah, because we sang Happy Birthday. I can totally look up the flyer and then we will know for sure. But it was definitely at Pino’s and it was definitely in June. And I think it was 2019 or ’18.
Christine Espiritu: A long time ago [laughs].
BK: And you guys played at Court Tavern also?
Christie Lutz: Yeah. And I really don’t know when that was.
Christine Espiritu: I don’t either.
Christie Lutz: It was in winter.
Jen Rector: It was in the winter because there was that massive snowstorm.
Christine Espiritu: Yeah, yeah. And it was for Elijah’s Promise [community kitchen and social services].
BK: And I was trying to see, did any of you play in bands before Hair Magic, in the New Brunswick area?
Jen Rector: I did. I had a band called No Jenny No. We used to play at the Somerset Inn a lot, and around New Brunswick. We played at the Court, too. But that was in like 19-, I don’t even know, maybe 2000’s. But we were done by like 2003 and that was that [laughs].
BK: And then I know Jen that you worked at Cheap Thrills record store.
Jen Rector: I did.
Bennett Kelly: What do you remember most about working there?
Jen Rector: I mean, probably still my favorite job, hands down. But yeah, I went to Rutgers and I loved working for Ed [Zinis], and it was fun to work at a record store, that’s for sure. That’s it. I mean, if I could work at a record store again, I would do it in a heartbeat.
But yeah it was great. I mean back then in the 90s, there were a ton of bands, people were playing at the Court Tavern all the time, people were playing at all the bars in the area. So it was just a fun time to be at Rutgers and in New Brunswick back then, for sure.
BK: As far as prior participation in the scene, did you all have something like that?
Christine Espiritu: I’m not from New Jersey. I grew up in Southern California. So I’m far removed. I guess I came to Highland Park in 2006. But my husband Brian, he’s in The Nowhere [band]. He has many more roots tied to this area than I do [laughs]. That’s kind of how I got to know all you guys. And kids I guess.
Jen Rector: All of our kids went to the same preschool, and we kind of all met each other separately from that.
BK: I think, you guys are pretty much a proud Highland Park band though, right? With the 08901, I think it is?
Jen Rector: 08904 [laughs].
Christine Espiritu: Four.
BK: 08904. And “Hair Magic” was a salon in town here as well, where the name comes from?
Christie Lutz: Yeah, it was a salon. I always call it an old lady salon [laughs].
Jen Rector: We weren’t even sure how many people got their hair cut there.
Christie Lutz: It was very mysterious, and it had dark windows. And I guess the owner was our landlord. Jen and I both rented behind Hair Magic. We didn’t know each other, but we rented at different times. You were maybe before me?
Jen Rector: I think I lived there before you. It was this apartment where they have the faith store there now, from the Reformed Church. It was Hair Magic then. There were two apartments behind it. I lived there in like ‘93-94. And I think you moved there a little bit after.
Christie Lutz: I was there, it must have been ‘95-96… It was a long time ago.
Jen Rector: But yeah, we lived there at separate times, and then we randomly found out that we both lived there and we’re like, Oh, maybe that’s what we should call the band!
Christie Lutz: Yeah. That was weird [laughs]. I was there ‘96, ‘97, in there somewhere.
Jen Rector: Yeah and we didn’t know. Because so many years had gone in between. I graduated Rutgers in ‘94 and then moved out of town for a little while, and then I moved back. So I hadn’t lived there in forever. And then we met each other in like 2014 maybe. So there was all those years in between.
But anyway, we both lived there. Christine is not from Highland Park, as she said. But I think we were just at a party and we had two potential band names [laughs]. We’re probably not going to share the other. And then we just landed on Hair Magic. And I think we decided it in one day, right? Or did we take a little time? Did we decide at the party?
Christine Espiritu: I think it was pretty quick.
BK: Yeah it’s kind of a cinch, that name. Makes sense.
Jen Rector: Cause we’re a Highland Park band and that’s an old Highland Park business.
BK: Yeah, got a lot going for it. There was another 90s band called Hair Corpse, if you remember them?
Christie Lutz: I think I’ve seen them on the WFMU, like in the archives.
Christine Espiritu: In the H’s [laughs].
Christie Lutz: Yeah [laughs].
BK: You also have a practice spot in a garage here, right? A detached garage?
Jen Rector: That was our pandemic spot.
Christie Lutz: Yeah that was our covid practice spot, in my garage. Yeah [laughs]. It was dirty and there were bugs.
Christine Espiritu: There weren’t as many bugs as there were in the other one.
Jen Rector: We also practiced in the Main Street basement.
Christie Lutz: That was probably the worst.
Jen Rector: There was like shrieks and screams often, that was disgusting.
Christine Espiritu: That’s where The Nowhere practices.
BK: Where was that?
Christie Lutz: It’s the offices of Main Street, Highland Park, on Raritan Avenue. Next to the Reformed Church parking lot. We used the basement for a period of time.
Christine Espiritu: I think it was two practices.
Jen Rector: It was disgusting [laughs].
BK: So you’ve got basement roots. Transitioning to some music questions now. If you started as a garage band or practicing in one, I was wondering if you had any covers when you were beginning to play together, and what those bands would have been.
Jen Rector: We were almost all covers for our first show. Did we even have an original?
Christine Espiritu: I don’t think so. We did Joan Jett. We did…
Jen Rector: Billy Idol.
Christine Espiritu: We do The Go-Go’s.
Christie Lutz: We tried to do some crowd pleasers.
Jen Rector: We did St. Vincent’s version from Bob’s Burgers. “Bad Tina.” That was fun. We did Blondie.
Christine Espiritu: The Primitives.
Jen Rector: We did Tiffany. We did The Muffs. Oh, my god. We’ve done a lot of covers. But we also try to put like one or two covers in our set and try to learn new covers periodically.
BK: And then as a trio, I feel that all three of you get featured as musicians. I was wondering if that’s a compelling part of it for all three of you to start a band and each getting to be out front. Christine as a bass player, you’re more a prominent guitar.
Does that make sense? For instance three of the five songs off the “Not Friends” EP start with bass intros. And I’m a former bass player. Barely. But I thought that was neat, to start with that many bass intros.
Christine Espiritu: I think with regards to songwriting, I think Jen’s the main, she comes up with the main song and then we kind of build on it. The lyrics and the rhythm.
Jen Rector: Yeah, we all write our own parts. But we just are a trio because it gelled that way, and then we kind of just… It works. So it’s not like a musical choice, but it does work for the style of music that we play.
And definitely we all, like you said, there’s bass features and there’s drum features, but it’s because that’s how we just write it together and make the song go together. But we just do our thing, basically. We did it for fun, primarily. And I think that we were pretty excited to be able to put out our own music. We just were like… Christine wanted to be in a band [laughs].
Christine Espiritu: I wanted to be in an all-girls band [laughs].
Jen Rector: Christine wanted to be in an all-girl band. And we have a mutual friend and he told her, I know Jen, go talk to Jen. And we all ended up at the same party. Not intentionally, randomly. We were all at the same party.
Christine Espiritu: And you guys were talking.
Jen Rector: We were talking and she walked over.
Christine Espiritu: And I was just like, [whispers] We need to start a band [laughs].
Jen Rector: Yes. And she said, John said you play. And I said, I used to, but okay. And then Christie basically learned drums so that we could be in a band.
Christie Lutz: I kind of always wanted to play drums, and my parents didn’t let me. So I still consider myself a really new drummer [laughs]. But, yeah, I really wanted to learn drums. And also, I think I was sort of protesting that… Can I say this? There were too many dad bands.
Jen Rector: [Laughs] Yes.
Christine Espiritu: We were all protesting that!
Christie Lutz: We needed, nothing against the dad bands, but I was like, Man, every dad I know has a band in this town. Like, where’s the lady bands?
Jen Rector: But we don’t want to be known as a mom band, though.
Christie Lutz: No.
BK: I was going to ask about drumming. It’s interesting that you’ve learned it more recently. Were there any drummers that you studied to get psyched for this or get into it, teach yourself?
Christie Lutz: No, I realized even though I always wanted to play drums, when I listened to music, that’s not what I focused on. I always focused on the vocals and the lyrics more than anything else. So I sort of had to start listening to drummers, or listening more for drums.
I think we all like The Breeders, and I love those drums. And Throwing Muses. So those are, I would like to kind of get to that point where I can drum like those guys. But, yeah, it’s been just a real learning experience, for sure. I think for all of us.
BK: I was thinking the way that you use crash symbols is very Ramones-esque. The crash symbols stand out. In a good way. Any Ramones interest?
Christie Lutz: I think they’re in there. You know what I mean? They’re like in the back of my mind, but not actively trying to play like them. But definitely now kind of listening to their drums more, I kind of consider it.
I take lessons with Ray Kubian. And we talk about different bands and drummers, and kind of get homework assignments, listen to different bands, and try out different patterns.
Jen Rector: We get the Ramones a lot. But we always thought it was because it’s our three-chord special [laughs]. Like a lot of our songs are just straightforward, three chords and a quick beat.
BK: Yeah I noticed in all the bands that you just mentioned earlier in the talk, the Ramones weren’t in there. But that was kind of what I was thinking. Also a Manchester-y kind of sound. I think “Flammable” would be a good early Blur song. I don’t know if that’s what… I’m kind of a Blur nerd, could see them do that one. If you like that sound.
Jen Rector: Maybe we should look up some old Blur covers too.
Christine Espiritu: Hmm, I never thought about that. Blur was not, it wasn’t in my thought process.
BK: Shoegazey stuff. Especially kind of the slower songs off the EP, you know?
Jen Rector: Yeah. I think we love music from the 90s, obviously. That is when we were growing. Well, we were grown. And so I think almost all of our songs had some type of influence from some band back then that we all loved and listened to.
And other than the covers that we picked, I think all of our songs are influenced in some way by some band that we love, or that we hear a little bit of this in there and say Oh! Then we try to structure the writing of the song more in that direction sometimes. We feel like sometimes we have a Breeders-y song, or we have a “Guyville,” what’s her name?
Christine/Christie: Liz Phair.
Jen Rector: A Liz Phair-type song, things like that. Not that we intentionally channel it, but when we pick up what we’re hearing and what it is that we’re writing, we’re like, Oh!
Christine Espiritu: Yeah.
Jen Rector: It just comes out. [Laughs]
BK: Cool. How about, how about “Randy Mantooth?”
BK: What inspired that? Which is a fun, tribute to a campy, pop-culture person.
Jen Rector: Well, Christie was home very sick for a very long time.
Christie Lutz: Yeah, I had had emergency surgery. And this is like 2016, election night 2016.
BK: Ah god.
Christie Lutz: And I woke up and Trump was president, and I was more upset about that than having had emergency surgery [laughs]. But anyway, so I was watching a lot of cable TV and just taking it easy, and I was watching “Emergency” [laughs] and I was like… Man, Randy Mantooth.
Jen Rector: I had a huge crush on Randy Mantooth when I was in elementary school. And so we kind of bonded over our love for that. Hence the song. Yeah, I mean, I had a major crush on both Roy and Randy Mantooth’s character. For real. Like, I had to watch the show every day.
Christie Lutz: Johnny Gage.
Jen Rector: Johnny Gage. Yes. I think I was like eleven. It was very easy to write because of how much we loved him [laughs].
I also wanted to write a song not about anything. I wanted to write a silly song. Most of my songs are, or at least the lyrics are very… They can be, not that I want people now to listen to them, but they’re personal. And this was just, we have two songs like that, that are just less serious.
BK: Which is the other one? The Santa one?
Jen Rector: No, “Nag.”
BK: Off the first EP?
Jen Rector: Yeah. It’s for real about a dead lizard.
BK: I gotta relisten to it…
Christine Espiritu: With that perspective, yeah.
BK: Well I was going to ask you Jen, because in “Simple,” you wrote, your lyrics are: “So many times I’ve tried to write a simple song, but nothing is simple and all the words turn out wrong.” So how do you approach lyric writing? Is it a struggle? If it’s personal, is it tough to write personal lyrics?
Jen Rector: I mean, it’s all I can do for the most part. So that’s why “Nag” was a challenge. And the same thing with “Randy Mantooth.” I also have songs that I wrote that I didn’t play with any band. And then this band, we brought songs from that first band and kind of redid them for us.
But yeah, my lyrics are always about something that I’m thinking about, usually in relationships to people and others. So that’s almost always what I write about. And I’m trying to get away from that. But that is what my brain focuses on, relationships between people. So that’s how those songs come. And the lyrics aren’t always easy.
BK: Yeah. That’s also very, The Smithereens were like that. A lot of relationship, kind of relationship alienation. It’s a good mode of lyrics. Which I enjoy. So I like it.
Jen Rector: Yeah. Thank you.
BK: You said some of those songs are from your older project?
Jen Rector: Yeah, No Jenny No. It was a band that I had in like the 2000’s, I guess. How do you say that, the aughts? Late late 90’s, early aughts. Basically, I had a band, we were playing and we were having a very good time. I met someone who took up more of my time. And then I also became a mom. So there was No Jenny No, relationship, mom. So for thirteen years there was no music [laughs]. It basically stopped. And some of those songs were newer, and that band had sort of dissolved after my new relationship. And one of the people passed away, the drummer passed away.
And then when Hair Magic formed, I was just like, Oh I have some songs. We just worked on them and made them happen. And now I’ve written new songs, but I still work in some of those old songs if they can work for us.
“Gale Force Wind,” that’s on the first EP and that was our first original song. That was a song I wrote back then. We had played it out, but it’s almost entirely different the way that Hair Magic does it.
BK: What kind of style was that band?
Jen Rector: It was a little bit more jangly, indie rock, I think. It was a bass player and a drummer who were a lot younger. And the rhythm section was loud. But it was more indie rock, I would just say that again a hundred times. You’re going to edit that out, right? [laughs]
BK: Sure. Yeah.
Jen Rector: I can play it for you. I’ll send you the link. I have like one show, so you can compare on your own. “Gale Force Wind” is not in that show but yeah.
BK: So how about, what’s next for Hair Magic? You’ve got this big show Saturday [November 18 at the Old Franklin Schoolhouse in Metuchen].
Jen Rector: A break.
Christine Espiritu: Yeah, I think a break. More writing. We want to work on new songs and have a new set before we play out again.
Jen Rector: I think what happened was we put out our EP [in April], but those songs that were on the EP, we had been already playing for so long. So finally the EP gets out and we’re like, We have the same set! So we need to work on a new set. That’s what we’re gonna do.
BK: This Saturday, you’re playing with Renee Maskin and another band.
Christine Espiritu: Girls on Grass. I think they’re from Brooklyn.
Jen Rector: Yeah. We played with them before, in Maplewood. We love playing at the Schoolhouse. We played early there too.
Christine Espiritu: The acoustics there are great.
Jen Rector: We played outside once at one of their festivals when we were brand new. And then we’ve been back probably two more times since then. And then this time.
Christie Lutz: And I’m from Metuchen. I used to go to this place when I was a kid, to ballet recitals and things like that. And now I’m playing there in a band. It’s kind of crazy.
BK: Yeah. A punk rock band. And then let’s see. Oh, so lastly, Christie, how’s it going at the [New Brunswick] Music Scene Archive? What’s new and exciting there?
Christie Lutz: It’s going. Well, most recently, last spring, I had a Rutgers public history intern who worked on the collection, and she added a whole bunch of new stuff that we got during the pandemic, that we brought in from a few people. She integrated that material into the collection. Flyers, a lot of flyers. Some publications, things like that. So that hopefully will all be kind of available, at least you could see online the things that have been added into the collection, soon.
And then she also worked on a small digitization project. So we digitized some flyers, and those are available through the Rutgers library website. The New Brunswick Music Scene Archive Digital Collection. And I’m going to have another intern in the spring, and I’d like this intern to digitize more materials so we can grow the digital collection. And we’ll also have some more things to integrate into the collection.
So, it’s very slow going, because it’s not the only thing I work on in my job. So we’re just slowly continuing to build it. And now that we’re pretty much through the pandemic I would like to look at having some public programming again. We used to do panel discussions, and film screenings. I’d like to get back to that at some point.
But it’s, you know, the flood. Nothing was damaged in the flood [Hurricane Ida in September 2021] but those of us who work in university special collections, and university archives where the archive was housed, our attention has been diverted elsewhere to sort of the aftermath of the flood and just a lot of issues around that. So that’s been tough, but I feel like we’re slowly coming back from that too.
BK: All right, great. Well, thank you Hair Magic.
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.