While the members of Wise Monkey Orchestra perform onstage or snooze in the van, their manager, Reed Stewart, keeps his hands on the wheel and an eye on the bottom line
by Lee Abraham
Jamming onstage is the fun part. But itıs the behind the scenes crap people don't see that usually makes or breaks a band. From booking tours to collecting the money at the end of the night, thereıs a lot of work involved. Wise Monkey Orchestra has been playing the touring game for the past eight years. Right now theyıre on a tear. MTV's "Real World" is playing their music. Corona beer features WMO on a new campaign of radio commercials that will air throughout the West for the rest of the year. And theyıve also got a new CD, Pathways, WMO's fourth independently produced disc - and its easily their best.
Before jumping in the van with the Wise Monkeys for a four city tour through northern California, I already knew their music. A veteran of many a WMO show, being transported to the outer reaches of Wise Monkey mania by their deeply grooved funk-n-jazz was nothing new. That's been happening since I first saw them a couple of years ago. It's the work behind the scenes that remained a mystery. WMO seems to have it all together, onstage and off. Making it happen is a lot more difficult than it looks.
Journal entry No. 1 Wednesday, June 16 6:30 p.m. The road between Las Vegas and San Diego is pretty much a straight shot. Stay on I-15 South and follow the signs. Sounds easy enough. And is easy is good. There's still another half hour drive or so to San Diego. Pretty soon I'll be a passenger. For the moment though, gotta keep an eye on the road.
Should roll into Ocean Beach around 7 p.m. The band is scheduled to leave right after a show at their friendly neighborhood nightclub, Winstons. Actually, itıs a Psydecar show, which includes WMO members Tim Pachecho, Ed Fletcher and Scotty Homan. Sean Hart, WMOıs keyboard player, works the sound at Winstons. And although trombonist, Andy "AG" Gieb, isn't in Psydecar, he's supposed to be at the club as well. Alley Stewart, the lead vocalist and her husband Chad, WMOıs bassist, left earlier in the day and will meet the rest of the band up in Santa Cruz for the first show. Let the games begin.
Journal entry No. 2 Thursday, June 17 2:09 a.m.: The Psydecar show is over and the band is loading up its gear. Several of the band's friends are hanging out behind the club. Although it's after 2 a.m., these folks still wanna party. One of the more animated revelers is a cat named Barry. Tonight is Barryıs birthday and he's on fire. Not only is he tipsy over a new party hat given to him as a present, he's dishing out vanilla layer cake like it's a crack-laced confection. "Have-some-cake!," he barks out in a quick, excited bursts to anyone that hasnıt already gobbled some. One girl presents the band with a cooler full of goodies - a case of beer, cheese and crackers, and a couple of Tupperware things filled with fresh picked strawberries.
When all the amps, instruments and other stuff is loaded, Reed Stewart, Chad's brother and the band's manager, whistles a wild west ranchers' "phwsst-chhawww" cattle drive call and the band responds. After a round of hugs, a bunch of "wish-I-could-jump-in-the-van-with-yous," and well wishes for safe travels, the van begins the long drive north.
1:12 p.m.: We pulled into the Brookdale Lodge not too long ago. Everybody slept during the night's drive except Reed. He drove. I did my best to stay up for a while. We talked about a bunch of stuff. Just yesterday we found out that the Furthur Tour, which was going to feature Ratdog, Leftover Salmon and others, had been canceled. Thats too bad, because Wise Monkey was slated to open for the entire 15 city run.
Furthur had its problems from the start. Delayed by former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh's liver surgery and subsequent opting out of the tour, it wasn't possible to put the itinerary together under such short notice. In the end it just didnıt come together in time. "Obviously, when we heard the news, we were very disappointed," Reed told me as we pounded out the miles under the starlit sky. "I think I was probably more disappointed than anybody. The band took it really well. This isn't our only opportunity and things are meant to be. We'll just take the good energy and buzz we got out of it.... You know its obviously not going to stop us, if anything it just kind of makes things a little easier in your soul knowing that, wow, all this hard is actually paying off. Not financially right now, but more on the connections were making and opportunities were getting."
As we pull into the motel, people start to wake up. As soon as we get situated we head to the little diner right on the premises, where, by chance, Zuba, a band from Colorado, has already laid claim on the premises. Zuba played The Brookdale the night before. Most of the Monkeys know the people in the band. In addition to various conversations, spurts of laughter and a general cacophony bounced noisily around the small diner. Fortunately there was only a few other people in the restaurant and they seemed amused by what was going on.
2:30 p.m.: Both bands are at work. Zuba's breaking down their gear and loading up their trailer, Wise Monkey is doing the opposite. The Monkeys want to get set up and do a sound check before too much time passes. In addition to the seven musicians, Reed and myself, "Young" James Northcross, the bands soundman-in-training, is also along for the trip. James was working as an intern at the recording studio where WMO recorded Pathways. The kid hit it off with the Monkeys. Even though heıs barely old enough to get into a bar, James has a good working knowledge of mixing and recording. He's even studied the stuff. After the sessions were over, Reed and the band invited him to travel with them.
"James is sort of a good luck charm," says Reed. "As we progress and mature, so will he. James hasn't been jaded yet by this business and that makes it easy for us to work with him. He already has a pretty good idea on sound and is very open minded and eager to learn new things."
As the musical equipment comes and goes, I scan the Brookdale Lodge. It's pretty interesting place. A huge, cavernous structure, the Brookdale's restaurant is built around a small stream that runs right through the center of the dining room. The story goes that it used to be a Mob funhouse where godfathers and top lieutenants went on weekends to carouse. The guys also tell me about the rumors of the place being haunted by the spirit of a former owners daughter who died on the property, and secret caverns below the restaurant. One thing the band likes is that the rooms are right next to the nightclub; that makes life easy.
The real high light, though, is a "glass wall pool" that adjoins the bar area. Legend has it that in the evenings, the Mafioso's would have their stable of prostitutes swim in the pool, naked except for a number painted on their butt, in order to make their selections for the night. Whether or not that's true, the girls in their bikinis taking a swim as the equipment was being loaded certainly did put the band in good spirits.
8:33 p.m.: Everything is set onstage. Right now is the pre-show chill. The TVs on in one of the motel rooms. Sean, Tim and Ed are watching the news. There's a story about an inner city racial hate crime and Sean starts to go off. He has his own take on race relations. "What the hell are they all so pissed off about?" he wants to know. "I mean c'mon, theyıre all pink in the middle."
Journal entry No. 3 Friday, June 18 6:15 p.m.: We're sitting in The Shamrock, a small bar somewhere in San Francisco. Last nights show in Santa Cruz went well. Dave Ellis, tenor sax player for The Other Ones and Ratdog, sat in for the entire show, blending perfectly with the bandıs horn-heavy grooves. Ellis met the Monkeys back in January during a Colorado tour. WMO was playing at a bar called Quixotes just outside of Denver, and Ellis was with his jazz band at the Bluebird Theater. At the time, Rich Maloney, soundman for the Furthur Tour and Dave Matthews, among others, was out with WMO doing sound. When Maloney found out that Ellis, his buddy from the Furthur, was playing down the street, he invited the saxman down to sit in after his show. The combination clicked so well that Ellis flew down to San Diego after the tour to play on several tracks for WMO's new record.
On a wild and crazy note - Birthday Barry flew up to San Fran for the show. We bumped into him en route to the Shamrock when someone just happened to spot him stopped at a red light in a rental car. He got really excited when he saw usall red in the face and crazy, hootin and hollerin. Seemed like old Barry was in danger of popping a blood vessel he was so pumped.
Though tonight's gig is at the Last Day Saloon, the band always hangs out at The Shamrock before a Frisco gig. They have friends there. Confirming it, Beth, The Shamrock's bartender, is sporting a Wise Monkey shirt as we walk in. After a round of high-fives, Reed gives her a copy of the new CD. She instantly puts it on the stereo.
Journal entry No. 4 Saturday June 19 1:15 pm: We've been on the road for a little over an hour en route to Lake Tahoe. Last night in San Francisco was a late one. After the show, most of the members went to a little after-hours party. Seems like there's folks in every town that want to go the extra distance with the band. The morning definitely came too quick.
The show last night was scorcher. The set included few new tracksa couple even shuffle Ed Fletcher from the kit to the keyboards, singer/percussionist/trumpet player Tim Pachecho taking his place. The Monkeys played great; the place was packed. People from Bill Graham Presents even showed up. Reed made it a point to introduce himself. "It's one step at a time with that sort of stuff. I think that basically if I can get these people out to the shows, then its up to the band," he says later.
7:54 p.m.: Just sorta hangin' at the motel. Pretty nice setup for this showthe motel is right down the block from the club. The altitude up here is pretty rugged, though. I wasnıt the only one that got a bit lightheaded during the load in. Regardless, the band is psyched for tonight's show at a place called The Elevation. Lots of trippy posters and colorful tapestries hanging on the walls. It's also where the Monkeys first discovered Red Bull Energy Drinks, another one of their sponsors.
Journal entry No. 5 Sunday, June 20 5:43 p.m.: Tonight's club, Whiskey Creek, in Mammoth Lakes, is set up weird. Access to the mixing board is actually behind the bar. Even more incredibly, itıs situated on top of a cabinet, something like six or seven feet in the air. James has to stand on top of a chair to get it dialed in. He's told that during the show, any adjustments to the board will be made by the bartender. Scary.
During the soundcheck, Tim helped him set the levels for the microphones. "Could use a little bottom end," Tim says. "It doesn't have any EQ," replies James. A puzzled look crosses Tim's face. "None?" "Nope, nothin." Tim looks astonished. He smiles. "Sounds Fine!" Everybody busts out laughing.
6:57 p.m.: The front porch of the condo we're supposed to be staying in isn't too comfortable. Right now there's a bunch of someone else's stuff inside the place. Part of the deal for tonightıs show was for the club to make the arrangements to put the band up. The guys tell me they've stayed here before and it's pretty nice. Doesn't matter though. Reed just pulled up in the van and he says that there's been a mix up, and that the club has agreed to book us into a motel.
Journal entry No. 6 Monday, June 21 2:21 a.m.: The bartenders and bouncers are getting antsy. They wanna go home. It was a busy night and they're tired. Sean, totally enjoying himself after another fine outing, is in rare form. He jumps on a chair and then onto the bar. Standing atop the bar with his hands in front of his face creating a megaphone he announces, "If you aren't having sex with someone in the band or loading gear, it's time to leave."
2:15 p.m.: Once again it's Reed behind the wheel and everybody is sacked out. I'm doing my best to stay awake. As we drive, Reed runs down the numbers from the tour. "Over the four nights we sold right at a hundred Pathways, plus another 25 that went into the stores. We sold another 60 or so of our other three CDs, plus another 15 or so of those that went into the stores." Not only is Reed pleased with the CD sales, he likes a new trend he's beginning to see. "Were starting to get people that want to buy all four CDs at once. We hadn't really seen that before."
7:31 p.m.: It's obvious that Reed gets satisfaction out of what he's doing. Managing an independent band with a wanderlust and high aspirations has its rewardsand lots of upside potential. But is it worth all the work? "It would be very easy for me to put tours together and say, 'OK guys, you're going out on the road. This is what you're going to do,'" he says. "I'm sure that they could get it all done, but I think thereıd be a lot more stress, a lot less enjoyment, and I donıt think things would go as well as if thereıs somebody there to deal with all the bullshit."
"The grind is the toughest part," he continues. "When you're at home, after a show you can sleep in. When you're on the road, a lot of times you don't have that luxury because there's a lot of miles to cover. Its the little things I miss the most." With the afternoon sun beginning to dip over the horizon, Reed takes a deep breath. In part to stay awake, in part to soak in the sweet and moist southern California air. Smiling, as if suddenly realizing that he'll be back in Ocean Beach soon, he turns to me. "Man, I'm gettin hungry. You up for a South Beach Fish Taco?"