The Defending Champions play Tierney’s Tavern on Halloween.
Starting from far left: unnamed guest musician, Justin Niemic, Dave Deriso, Dean Nevolis, Matt Ryan, Eric Swiontkowski, Jeff Fernandes, Matt Schoenebaum, Jeremy Hunt, unnamed guest musician. In front Jovan Alvarez. COURTESY MATT RYAN

The Defending Champions release party, ‘Don’t Stop’
Brother Valiant opens

Saturday, Dec. 2, 9 p.m. on
Tierney’s Tavern, upstairs, 136-138 Valley Road
$10 cover, includes CD


When The Defending Champions hold their CD release party for their third CD, “Don’t Stop,” at Tierney’s Tavern Saturday night, it will be a real release.

Lots of groups hold multiple “launches,” celebrating new music, and holding a party. But Saturday will be the real deal for Matt Ryan, lead vocalist and trombonist with the seven-member band.

It’s the band’s first new CD since 2012’s “Breakfast of…The Defending Champions.” Their song “Raise My Glass”  appeared in the 2014 film “Frank,” starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Ryan knows the trend is toward digital, and though “Don’t Stop” will be on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, etc. (and former releases are there), he says that fans still like something to hold in their hands. “The fact that people want to listen to your music at all is an amazing feeling,” Ryan said. The cover charge for the release party gives fans a ticket to get a CD from the merch table.

The band has been playing since 2007, with a few line-up changes along the way. Over the summer, the band got a new drummer, Jeff Fernandes. Apart from Fernandes, the current members have been together for six years. Ryan, Dean Nevolis, and Matt “Shooby” Schoenebaum, all grew up together in Verona. All the venues they played at then were in Montclair, he said, so it was natural to want to raise a family here. In September, Ryan bought a house in Montclair. He and his wife are expecting.

The band’s name came from a “battle of the bands” an earlier group had won the year before. On the way to the competition, someone said, “We’re the defending champions.” And Ryan said that Dean said the next band name would be “The Defending Champions.”

Now 34, Ryan works as a special ed teacher at Montclair’s Sawtelle Learning Center. While 34 may seem relatively young, it’s a lot older than 24 and where all the guys were when the band started, Ryan said.

And the desire to keep going is reflected in the title of the CD, “Don’t Stop.”

“We’re all getting older, with the challenges of adulthood and jobs. Everyone’s busier than ever, but we want to keep playing. We love playing music together. We felt it was a perfect message to put out there.” Seven guys with seven schedules can be tricky to coordinate. But “if you truly believe in something, keep fighting.” The song also reflects some of his political sentiments, Ryan said with a laugh.

The Defending Champions isn’t a typical guitar band: it’s horn heavy. Ryan plays the trombone. Jovan Alvarez plays trumpet. Schoenebaum plays saxophones, flute and clarinet. The song “Down on Your Luck,” has more than a minute of instrumentals before the vocals even begin. “The horn line drives that song,” Ryan explained.

On this CD, the band challenged themselves to NOT include ska: “We are a blend of rock, soul, and we infuse some gypsy influences. There is a lot of blues influence on this album.” Not including ska was a goal, because while ska was always an element of their music, it was frustrating when the group was described as “ska-rock” or “ska-pop.” Stepping outside of ska was “a step outside of our comfort zone.”

But the change doesn’t worry Ryan: their fan base in Montclair and in Jersey City has been “super supportive” and Tierney’s has been the band’s home base since they started: “They let us be us.”

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