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Sooner or later, members of the band 10,000 Maniacs know the N word will come up in conversation. That's N as in Natalie Merchant, the band's former lead singer and songwriter.

The Maniacs started together in Jamestown during the early '80s as a pioneering alternative band and Merchant evolved from a shy, young teen-ager into a dominating presence as an social activist, generational role model, fashion queen and MTV star.

The rest of the 10,000 Maniacs may have seemed lost in the background, but the band -- featuring Rob Buck, guitar; Dennis Drew, keyboards; Steve Gustafson, bass; and Jerome Augustyniak, drums -- like Natalie, grew in stature and talent.

It all ended with a bang in the '90s.

The 10,000 Maniacs released two of this decade's biggest albums, "Our Time in Eden" (1992) and "Unplugged" (1993). Both sold over a million copies ("Unplugged" was close to 2 million).

The Maniacs became stars and as such were invited to play with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney at a benefit concert and at President Clinton's inauguration. The band was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame as the most successful group to come out of Western New York.

Merchant announced she was leaving the band in 1993 for a solo career due to "a desire for change and a need for growth." She seemed burdened by carrying the artistic load for the band, and said, "I definitely felt a responsibility for everyone."

For the past year and a half, little was heard from Merchant or the 10,000 Maniacs. Now both are gearing up for tours and new albums.

Merchant's CD is due this spring, and it promises to be one of the most hyped albums of the year.

Meanwhile, back in Jamestown, the four Maniacs have been joined by John Lombardo, an original member who left the band in 1986, and Mary Ramsey. They are working on a new album and touring this spring and will be at the Marquee at the Tralf on April 8.

On a recent afternoon, the Maniacs were rehearsing in a small studio in Jamestown. Merchant was nowhere to be found, but her shadow was everywhere.

"It's a lot different without Natalie," said Buck, recognized as one of the most talented lead guitarists in modern rock. "We want to show people that our sound is the Maniacs' sound. It wasn't just Natalie, it was the 10,000 Maniacs -- all of us.

"Natalie is a great talent, and I think she'll make a great album. But our album will be the Maniacs' album. We want to show people we weren't just hanging on Natalie's coattails."

Some aspects of Merchant's presence are not missed.

"Right now, it's much more relaxed in the studio," Buck said. "I'm not afraid to come here anymore (he laughs). Natalie wasn't really scary, but she could be like a school marm. You know, like a strict nun in the classroom."

Drew sums up the atmosphere: "We're not mad at Natalie. We all love Natalie. We grew up with Natalie. But now it's time for something new."

The Maniacs' independence goes beyond Merchant. They are co-producing the new CD with longtime friend Armand John Petri. It is expected to be released on an independent label instead of one of the big record company labels.

"This is the record we want to make, and we're going to make our own way," Drew said. "Sometimes you work with big producers and big record companies and you compromise your ideas. Not this time."

The band possesses an almost defiant attitude of self-determination.

"I think, in a way, we all have something to prove," Drew said. "All I want out of this record is respect. I want people to realize that we are a good band."

The story of the Maniacs has enough plot twists and irony to fill a soap opera.

These once young, rebellious musicians have had their fill of the wild rock 'n' roll lifestyle. They are entering their late 30s, family men, with homes, children and a place in music history.

His father once joked that John Lombardo was the "Pete Best of Jamestown," because he left the Maniacs just before they became major stars. Now Lombardo's back as his old band struggles to find its way back to the big time without Natalie.

Mary Ramsey, an attractive, introspective, classically trained musician is stepping into the lead singing role, replacing Merchant.

All these changes have brought pressure, but at this stage of their lives, the Maniacs have learned to put life and music into perspective.

"We all lived and breathed and worked every moment for this band for 10 years," Gustafson said. "Once I got married and had a baby, I discovered what's really important.

"I used to be one of those musicians who said longevity doesn't matter, do what you want, do your best and have a good time. That all changed when my baby was born."

Drew reached the same state of mind. "Playing with Paul McCartney and being with President Clinton was great, but it can't compare to my daughter's birth and seeing her healthy. She was born premature. I look at her and I know what really matters."

In a drafty, cramped studio, on a late March morning, a visitor senses that regardless of how the new record sells, these Maniacs have survived their mid-life crises.

"This has really been a shining experience for them," said Gary Starr, the band's assistant, who has known the Maniacs since the early days. "They are mature, happy, have their own families and it reflects in the music. It's very tight and powerful.

"Of course the big difference is that Natalie isn't here. Now the band's music stands on its own."

Ramsey and Lombardo will be the biggest changes for longtime Maniacs' fans.

"I love Natalie, but I love Mary in a special way," Storm said. "It's a tough spot for Mary. She's not trying to replace Natalie, but Natalie's ghost is still here."

There are differences between the two women. On stage, Merchant was sexy, mysterious, outspoken and unpredictable. Once, during a Buffalo performance, Merchant stopped in the middle of a show to give a pro-choice lecture and fielded questions from the audience on abortion.

Ramsey appears much more traditional and delicate. Her vocals are light and soothing, and she appears much more a team player. Drew describes Ramsey's on stage persona, as "sexy, but in a girl-next-door kind of way."

Ramsey is hesitant to speak on the issue of replacing Natalie. She remains close friends with Merchant; Ramsey played on the last two Maniacs' albums. "I'm enjoying this; it's a very creative process," is all Ramsey will say for the moment.

The focus may be on Ramsey, but Lombardo is just as vital to the band. During the group's early days, Lombardo brought the Maniacs a tough edge that was somewhat lacking after he left. Lombardo, with Ramsey, is writing about 90 percent of the lyrics for the new songs, and veteran Maniacs' fans will feel familiar with the sound.

Lombardo teamed with Ramsey for the past four years singing in clubs, recording and touring as John and Mary. Now he is enjoying this return to his roots.

"I don't feel any pressure," Lombardo said, wearing his trademark black leather jacket and jeans. "The difference now, I think, is that we appreciate things more. You know, like looking at the glass half full, instead of half empty.

"We're all having a good time. This band is a like a team, and we're focused on our roles. I see it as a group of people who have grown up together and played together a long time. It's all very natural.

"Certain bands lose their chemistry after a while and think that it can always be recaptured. It doesn't always work out that way, but the minute we got back together, the chemistry was back."

Chemistry is fine, but what matters in the record business is the bottom line.

"I really don't think the point of the new Maniacs record is how much it sells," said Peter Leak, the band's longtime manager. "The point is to make a good record, and I have every confidence they will."

Leak is impressed with the Maniacs. "I've been with them a long time, and I see this as a whole new beginning. John is great, and Mary has been wonderful. The people who love the 10,000 Maniacs will love this band.

"The people who gave up on them will be surprised. Maybe they wondered why the band should go on without Natalie. When they hear the album, they'll understand why they did go on."

Augustyniak, who grew up in Sloan and joined the Maniacs in 1983, feels a connection to the past.

"We hope we can capture the old magic all over again. It's a real family feeling in the studio. Collectively, we revel in each other's company.

"That's the way it should be, because we never considered ourselves rock stars. We just want to put out a good record."

Can it be done without Natalie?

"No one ever said Natalie was great and we were lousy," Gustafson said. "A lot of people think just because Natalie left, the band broke up. That didn't happen, we've always been together, we just took some time off after all the craziness, hard work of the last 10 years."

The time away from the limelight seems to have strengthened, re-energized and united this version of the 10,000 Maniacs.

"I've worked with a lot of bands, but I've never felt such a family atmosphere as with this one," Petri said. "There's a real closeness in and out of the studio."

These days, the ties that bind the 10,000 Maniacs involve more than fame or money. It's about shared experiences, maturity and the resolve to prove themselves one more time.

"We've all gone through a lot over the years -- John, Natalie, and the rest of us," Gustafson said. "Now, it's like everything has come full circle. We're back together and we're starting over."

And like the song says, for the 10,000 Maniacs, these are the days.

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