Four local bands make a fast impression
Just because it’s winter, it doesn’t mean you have to stay at home. We all know it’s easy to feel the lethargy that sets in at the end of a long year as the start of El Niño advisories kick into gear, but wallowing in a season of bedroom iPod sessions doesn’t have to be the call. With Santa Cruz teeming with musicians, the following are four local bands whose live shows leave no room for idle observation. During the past year, each has corralled audience participation and allegiance that’s making heads turn. Whether through jagged classic rock mayhem, a feverish ska whirlwind, amorphous post-punk power or a blistering funk shake-up, each tantalizes with a reputation for a high-adrenaline show that’s spreading as infectious and as fast as the H1N1.
No matter how epic your playlist may be, seeing the real thing live will keep you toastier than your long underwear—so go to a show and leave your coat at the door. You’ll stay warm through the music.
It’s 6:30 p.m. and I feel out of place hitting up the Blue Lagoon so early. Its black walls and empty stage stand quiet as red lights pulsate overhead in the vacant band room, flickering hints of what will come alive later in the evening. I’m sitting at a table as Keith Thompson, the sound engineer, speedily preps the room for the night’s concert. Finally, irked by the quiet, he puts on The Seeds’ “Satisfy You” as background music for our chat about his own band that’s riled up the very room we’re in many times over, the Groggs.
“It’s working class,” Thompson says of the Groggs’ sound, after joining me with a can of Pabst nestled in his hand, his Golden Boots T-shirt peeking out from his denim jacket. “Most people can relate to it. If we showed up at a veterans’ VFW bar we could probably not get killed.” The singer adds, “It’s not about how intellectual we are, it’s about how we can connect, write kick-ass songs and get everyone pumped and moving.”
Having quaked stages alongside Bob Log III, Kid Congo Powers and the Black Lips, the Groggs have stepped up as one of Santa Cruz’s premier rock acts, delivering on a promise of classic rock and big-hit songwriting based around basic chords. Thompson may claim an aversion to over-intellectualizing art rockers, but don’t be fooled: the Groggs don’t lack introspection. Along with gritty, high-adrenaline garage rock and plenty of nods to ’70s guitar punches and punk rock, the trio delves into country and soul influences (think Townes Van Zandt and the Byrds) and current crowd favorites include some nearly-shoegaze-infused pop rock ballads.
“We want to show that everyone should have a band in Santa Cruz—even the guy who cuts my hair can have a band. There’s no line or distinction between who can play.”
—Keith Thompson, The Groggs
Throughout our conversation, Thompson affectionately refers to his girlfriend and primary source of inspiration, Luxury Sweets bassist Rachael MacKenzie Chavez, as “my chick,” and Groggs bassist Ryan Allbaugh as “my bro,” and the 27-year-old talks about his songwriting intentions with the same unabashed candor and casual confidence.
“We’re trying to unite the reverb-drenched Wall of Sound with classic songwriting and punk energy,” the frontman says of the band’s upcoming debut album, recorded at Compound Recordings where Thompson labored as an intern in exchange for studio time. “I hope it’s a great rock record. Like one for the ages, to put on the shelf next to your Clash and Ramones records. You could put on the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia and then you could put on our album and draw a line to it.”
Twenty minutes into our talk, Allbaugh rushes in. Sporting long hair and a black Pestilence hoodie, the bassist’s death metal background is obvious. Apologizing for being late due to a water pipe bursting on River Street, Allbaugh’s darkness seems to end with his attire. Smiley and lighthearted, the Chico native chimes in to describe his rising band with Thompson and drummer Justin Ward as “unpretentious and enjoyable and a little in your face—old fashioned bar rock in the best sense of the term.” Then he laughs with an afterthought, “Well, maybe we don’t want to emphasize the beer too much!”
“We don’t play to any specific class or social group,” Thompson states. “It’s something to bring all those people together. We want to show that everyone should have a band in Santa Cruz—even the guy who cuts my hair can have a band. There’s no line or distinction between who can play.” Allbaugh agrees, “Yeah, why not? It’s just fun.”
So what’s next for the Groggs in their searing rock plight for the everyman?
“We’re going to attempt another West Coast tour
in the spring once we have the record out,” Thompson says. “That’s if we can get our van to smog—which is not looking good.”
For more information on The Groggs, check out myspace.com/thegroggs.
Dan P & The Bricks
Boys just wanna have fun
Dan Potthast is a busy guy. He just recently returned from a solo tour in Australia, and by the time this hits stands he’ll be somewhere in England appeasing his established fanbase in Old Blighty. Along with his solo work, Potthast is the frontman for veteran St. Louis ska punkers MU330, The Stitch Up, Spitzer, and, now, Santa Cruz’s latest party instigators, Dan P and The Bricks. A self-described “10-piece ska blow-up,” the band is an all-star cast featuring four members of former Catalyst-packing heavyweight Slow Gherkin, a full horn section, and Potthast’s notorious, commanding stage banter known to seize an audience faster than an open bar. Consider them your latest musical happy hour.
As we chat, Potthast is, you guessed it, busy. Preparing for the ensemble’s busking gig on Pacific Avenue later in the evening, the frontman is tuning the most infamous member of The Bricks: a piano he sawed apart with tenor saxophonist Matt Knobbe. Yes, I said sawed.
The unusual endeavor came about after a friend dropped off a beat-up piano at Potthast’s home while he was on tour. “You wouldn’t necessarily want it in your house,” he says of the old instrument, “Plus we live on the second floor. So I was thinking about what I could do with this thing because it sounded pretty good but was way out of tune. So I taught myself how to tune a piano just by going online and getting books and stuff. Then I was looking at it and thought, ‘What if it was smaller and we could take it downtown and play?’ And I got the idea of chopping off the low and high end of it.”
By using heavy duty saws and a grinder to get through the metal harp, Potthast and Knobbe garishly did some downsizing. “I was shocked when we put it back together and it worked,” he laughs. “There were sparks flying in my carport and there are still scars on the concrete where we pulled it off.”
Pulling off an experimental, uncalculated feat that makes sparks fly is pretty synonymous with the background and sound of The Bricks. A group of friends who’ve milled around the same rock circuit for years but in different acts, The Bricks haphazardly came together in February. With Potthast churning out tunes for the full ensemble—which includes Phil Boutelle helming horn arrangements, AJ Marquez dancing at his analog Korg organ if not that curious piano, Matt Porter bouncing on guitar, Josh Lorey driving the drumkit, and all members harmonizing for the constant blasts of danceable, sing-along choruses—one of the band’s first shows was at the Shoreline Amphitheatre for a Warped Tour after party. “It was funny because on our MySpace schedule it said we were playing an arcade in San Jose and then playing Shoreline!” Potthast recalls.
Arcade or amphitheater, the guys are happy just having fun—and getting listeners to do the same. Planning to record an album in the new year (they’ve got more than 20 songs readied), Dan P and The Bricks are an entourage of rock alumni fanning their old ska flame. Potthast admits, “From the first practice, almost more than any other thing I’ve done, I thought, ‘Wow, this has some potential.’” Still, reeling in the dough isn’t a potential he expects, and the band has instead devoted performances to benefit nonprofits.
“There’s never any motivation to make money when you’ve got 10 people in the band,” the singer says. “It’s like, ‘Great, we made a hundred dollars, we each get 10 bucks!’ It’s pretty ridiculous, so we thought we should pool the money and put it toward charity.” Having played at the finish line of the Surf City AIDS Ride and put on shows to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and Hospice of Santa Cruz, the band sticks to a simple plan of good buddies skillfully having a skankin’ good time.
Finally, since he’s got the giving spirit, I ask Potthast if he has any tips now that he’s an expert at ingeniously minimizing pianos. His answer matches his unrestrained approach on stage: “Just start sawing and hope that you don’t ruin anything.”
For more information on Dan P and The Bricks, check out myspace.com/danpandthebricks.
All for one
It’s a universal truth that every band hates being asked what genre it plays. For Green Flash, such a question recently almost led to a bar brawl. Singer and bassist Raya Heffernan explains: “We were at a bar and Carly (Flies) was talking about the amazing songwriting of Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach, and this kid comes up to us and asks what we’re talking about. We tell him we’re talking about rock ‘n’ roll and he asks us, ‘Do you guys play in a band?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah, we do.’ He asks us what kind of music we play and I just say, ‘Uh, rock ‘n’ roll?’ Then he just started going off!”
Flies, Green Flash guitarist, calmly observes, “He was just being a know-it-all and trying to
tell Raya and I about rock ‘n’ roll. I think he was a little intoxicated.” “There’s so many subgenres of music these days, it’s ridiculous,” adds drummer Peter Wallner, completing the band conversation.
Such is Green Flash: three voices supporting each other in equal turns as one unit that’s firing up a schizophrenic rock hybrid. Pop sensibilities and seductive vocals, fiery post-punk unpredictability, brightly charged riffs that swell and simmer down to eerie silences. As we sit outside on a sunny afternoon, the year-old band speaks in round robin format about its much hyped emergence, band dynamic, and upcoming 7-inch. Flies describes her cohorts’ roles: “Peter brings mad genius, Raya brings the heart, and I think I bring, I don’t know … “ Wallner interjects, “You bring the noise!”
After seeing Heffernan perform last year, Flies says she felt an instant urge to connect. “Raya’s voice is mysterious and dark and yet warm. I just like that. We had conversations minimally and I thought, ‘That girl’s cool. She’d probably be a good person to be in a band with.’” A week later, she says the pair began jamming and “dorking out by watching ’80s pop videos” and the first glimmers of Green Flash sparked. Months after, Wallner joined the fold and now the three are in the studio polishing the finishing touches to a 7-inch featuring four songs, and plotting a full length for next year. And not without notice.
From wild instrumental juggernauts like the seven-minute “Swimming the Witch,” to brief two-minute catchy jingles like “Thrift Store Girl” or the murky and atmospheric “Drowning,” Green Flash’s patchwork of passionate, edgy sounds has already packed houses and lit up word-of-mouth buzz, and impending tours are on the horizon. Heffernan, in a dress and pigtails, is the pixie-like bubbly personality of the crew, while both Flies and Wallner sit with a more understated, reserved tone. Heffernan and Flies curiously giggle at their own asides, and it’s apparent that each band member finds a refuge in the others.
“We’re all very sensitive, dreamy people,” Flies maintains. “We’ve worked really hard at making this a close friendship. We’re not just people who play music together, we’re best friends who care about each other.”
Flies contends that “music is the thing that spared all of our lives, I’ll go to that extreme level to make that statement. We all feel the same way and we’re trying to do this together because American society isn’t necessarily the most fun when you find yourself as a young artist.”
Wallner, who says he’s physically incapable of doing anything other than music and counts a failed attempt at becoming a postal worker as one of the many alternatives he’s unsuccessfully tried, brings it all home in one agenda: “There’s a lot of sad individuals in the world and hopefully we can give them something to love—”
Heffernan: “Like a puppy!”
Wallner: “Yeah, like a puppy.”
And then all three burst into laughter.
For more information on Green Flash, check out myspace.com/greenflashgo.
Funky phoenix rising
Watching Frequency Jones blast through an explosive set of nasty funk, one would never guess that nearly a decade ago, bandleader Renzo Staiano couldn’t even pick up a guitar. Literally. “I was gigging around a lot in the Bay Area and I ended up getting terrible, terrible tendonitis to the point where I couldn’t do anything,” Staiano recalls. “I couldn’t even shake hands or flip eggs in a pan. I let it go too far. I had to stop playing and it was the only time in my life that I really felt like I was going crazy because I wasn’t performing.”
To stave off further insanity, the Berklee graduate who’d been a full-time musician in pop bands “trying to be famous” at the time, decided to fill the musical gap in his life by heading to UC Santa Cruz to study Latin American ethnomusicology: “I figured I’d study something that involved me at least thinking about music since I couldn’t play it.”
Today, after years of physical and mental healing, Staiano can tackle his Les Paul or Gretsch hollow body just fine as the founder of a seven-piece that executes a tightly arranged set of funk-based grooves. After a visit to the New Orleans JazzFest last year, where he witnessed fellow Berklee graduates in Lettuce rally up a storm, Staiano was inspired to finally put together the band he’d been envisioning for a long time, with keyboardist Justin Fagnani.
An instrumental outfit that hosts premium guest vocalists like Tammi Brown and Naomi Wilder, Frequency Jones balances modern flavors—Staiano loves ?uestlove and hip-hop drumming, has been incorporating electronica nuances, and all the members bring a jazz influence—but still hangs on to an older era. “We’re not trying to follow in that legacy of the Santa Cruz all-white reggae band or all-white Cuban son band, which is so popular and which I’ve been part of before,” the 35-year-old states. “We’re using the aesthetic and developing our own sound that’s funk influenced. It’s music for the mind, booty and soul.”
“We’re not trying to follow in that legacy of the Santa Cruz all- white reggae band or all-white Cuban son band … We’re using the aesthetic and developing our own sound that’s funk
influenced. It’s music for the mind, booty and soul.” —Renzo Staiano, Frequency Jones
The FJ website declares that it’s taking “the best of the golden age of ’60s and ’70s funk, but leaving the cheese behind.” The band does so by eschewing kitschy lyrics, costumes and an overdose of wah-wah effects. Instead of loose jams or outlandish antics (except when all the members dressed up as Jesus for their Halloween gig), Frequency Jones spends more time nailing down each groove so that all the little sixteenth notes interlock accurately, and all the giant down beats and syncopated upbeats coalesce into a technically clean and informed sound that gyrates a crowd.
Now looking back on that injury and forced hiatus from performing, the learned guitarist says of his recuperation, “I’ve probably been back at my full powers for about a year or so.” When I observe that his complete recovery seemed to coincide with the start of his current stint steaming things up with Frequency Jones, the guitarist smiles with a jolt of realization: “You’re right, since about then! That’s when I really decided to get back into what I love. Now I’m back.”
For more information on Frequency Jones, check out myspace.com/frequencyjonesband.
Dan P: Scott Speidel
Frequency Jones:Charles Mixson
Green Flash: Alexis Woods.jpg
The Groggs: Charlie Mixson