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The band was formed as Still Life, in Jamestown, New York, by Steven Gustafson (then 23 years old and a bass player), Dennis Drew (23; keyboards) and Robert Buck (22; guitar), Terry Newhouse (Buck's ex-wife and a vocalist) and Chet Cardinale (drums). Gustafson invited Natalie Merchant, then age 17, to do some vocals. John Lombardo (28; guitar) who was in a band called The Mills, used to play with Still Life occasionally and was invited to join permanently. Newhouse and Cardinale left the band in July, and Merchant became the main singer. Various drummers came and left. The band changed its name to Burn Victims and then to 10,000 Maniacs, after the low-budget horror movie Two Thousand Maniacs.
They performed as 10,000 Maniacs for the first time on September 7, 1981 (Labor Day), with a line-up of Merchant, Lombardo, Buck, Gustafson, Drew, and Tim Edborg (drums). Edborg left and Bob "Bob O Matic" Wachter was on drums for most of the 1981 gigs. Tired of playing other people's songs, they started to write their own, usually with Merchant writing lyrics and Lombardo the music. In February-March 1982, with Jim Foti on drums, the band recorded an EP called Human Conflict Number Five. More gigs followed in 1982.
At the beginning of 1983, drummer Jerry Augustyniak (26) joined the band. The Maniacs met Augustyniak when they played in Buffalo, New York, where he was in a punk band called The Strains and he was invited to be part of the band. Between March and July they recorded songs for a second record, Secrets of the I Ching — their debut album — which was pressed by Mark Records for the band's own label, Christian Burial Music. The record was well-received by critics and it caught the attention of John Peel, a DJ at Radio BBC Radio 1 in London. One song, "My Mother the War" turned out to be a minor hit in the United Kingdom, and it entered the independent singles chart. During 1983 and 1984, touring was a way of life for the band and they also played some gigs in the UK.
Peter Leak, an Englishman living in New York City, became interested in the band, made contact and was made their manager. With the help of Leak and Elektra Records A&R man Howard Thompson, 10,000 Maniacs signed to Elektra in 1985. They recorded their second full-length album, The Wishing Chair, in London with Joe Boyd as producer.
Lombardo left the band on July 14, 1986. The remaining five members started the recordings of a new album in Los Angeles, with Peter Asher as the producer. In My Tribe, a more pop-rock oriented record, was released on July 7, (1987), hit the charts and established a large U.S. audience for the group, which was expanded by Blind Man's Zoo (1989). In 1990, with the help of Lombardo, they remastered their first two records (Human Conflict and I-Ching) and released them as a compilation called Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings 1982-1983. Lombardo and Mary Ramsey, who had formed a folk act called John & Mary, opened gigs for the Maniacs on the Hope Chest Tour in 1990. In 1991, during the recordings of a new album, Merchant revealed to the other members that she would be leaving for a solo career in two years' time. In 1992, Our Time in Eden was released. On April 21, 1993, 10,000 Maniacs recorded MTV Unplugged and Merchant announced her leaving the band on MTV on August 5, 1993. (Her first solo album, Tigerlily, was released by Elektra on June 20, 1995.) The 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged CD was released in October of 1993. The remaining members of 10,000 Maniacs then absorbed John & Mary, with Ramsey on viola and vocals.
10,000 Maniacs released two albums with Mary Ramsey on vocals. In 1997 they released Love Among the Ruins and followed up in 1999 with The Earth Pressed Flat.
On December 19, 2000, Robert Buck died of liver failure at age 42. Their last concert with Buck had been on November 3, 2000, when the band played with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, in Buffalo, New York.
The band took a break. Gustafson and Drew, with Jeff Erickson (guitar) started a band called Mighty Wallop. Jerry joined a band called Only Humen. On December 5, 2001, a 10,000 Maniacs line-up comprising Gustafson, Drew, Augustyniak, Lombardo, and Ramsey played on a benefit concert in Toronto, with Erikson on guitar.
In 2002, Gustafson, Drew, and Augustyniak decided that they wished to continue on with a new lead singer. Lombardo showed up at the first band practice, found out that they band had hired Erickson to play lead guitar and Oskar Saville of the Chicago-based band Rubygrass to sing, and quit the band. This lineup toured sporadically in 2003, 2004, and 2005, playing a "greatest hits" show which consists mostly of festivals.
Mary Ramsey rejoined the current edition of 10,000 Maniacs for several dates in 2006, playing viola and singing backing vocals. John and Mary still occasionally play together; they appeared August 26 and 27 at the Elmwood Village Festival of the Arts in Buffalo, both as an acoustic duo and with a backing band.
On January 27, 2004, Elektra/Asylum/Rhino Records released Campfire Songs, subtitled "The Popular, Obscure and Unknown Recordings", a two CD set compilation, with 31 digitally remastered songs, four of them demos and one unreleased. The 2nd disc contained b-sides and outtakes throughout the band's (up to that point) career, including many covers. Jackson Browne's "These Days" and Tom Waits "I Hope that I Don't Fall in Love with You" were among those included.