San Diego's Wise Monkey Orchestra sell their Soul on the road.
by Will K. Shilling
L.A.’s House of Blues is surely a Faustian joke. It’s faux-Delta design evokes unshakable images of Pirates, the Caribbean, All-Bear Jug Bands and Tom Sawyer Island. In short, Disney. Or as I like to call him, Satan. And so it was with a grain of salt that I congratulated local favorites Wise Monkey Orchestra on landing the gig as part of their Winter2000 tour.
Of course, I got over the whole thing pretty quickly when they said I could tag along for the ride. After a few hours getting the royal rock star treatment in the House of Blues VIP room, I was ready to sign on the dotted line – and WMO hadn’t even taken the stage yet. Whatever pious prejudices I held prior were melted away by the venue’s devious allure. I didn’t care, I would justify it later in the name of journalism. After all, didn’t Wise Monkey heroes Black Sabbath name an album “We Sold Our Soul For Rock &Roll?”
-- journal entry 1.13.00. Anyone who’s semi-conscious of the San Diego music scene might be suspicious of Wise Monkey Orchestra these days, considering the Ocean Beach-based sextet has mysteriously transformed into one of the country’s premier live acts without a major record contract. Lately, they've been living for giving the devil his due: In the two months following their trip to the Sunset Strip, WMO has been toiling ceaselessly on their most ambitious stretch of touring to date. They packed houses in 17 states throughout the Midwest and east coast, according to the band’s manager, Reed Stewart (One Drop Productions).
Highlights, however, were hard for him to single out. "The tour has been so amazingly well-received," he almost sighed, as if picking out one date from another was too overwhelming a task to consider. New guitarist Marty Schwartz, however, was quick to name his personal high point: "I’m still kind of in denial that we just rocked the Wetlands," said Schwartz, who only joined the band a month before embarking on the winter leg of the tour. "We played with Percy Hill and Fat Mama. I’m very familiar with the Wetlands history… [I was] humbled and thoroughly impressed."
Started in Tempe, Arizona by keyboardist Sean Hart, Wise Monkey added three others who remain at the band’s core today: Bassist Chad Stewart, trombonist Andy Geib and vocalist Alley Bratcher (who took Chad Stewart’s last name in exchange for wedding vows in 1997). Boasting a high-octane blend of funky drumming, futuristic soul and a heavy metal ethos, the group’s jazz and classical training played major roles in elevating their unique sound – one that cultivated loyal followings, first in their Tempe hometown, then later with adopted San Diegans, ultimately creating a buzz with audiences across the country -- from quirky dives in Colorado to the House of Blues in L.A. to the Wetlands in New York City.
Asked to trace her own evolution as a singer and how it had brought her to this point, Alley Stewart summed it up with trademark glibness: "I was into musicals when I was young… then I ended up on acid in a college band," she dead panned. "How’s that for evolution?" The band’s chief lyricist, Alley did more than her share of living back in the high old college daze. "I remember being so pissed one time because the band was playing an encore -- and I just wanted to got to the bathroom," she laughs, fortunately able to look back in bemused, sober reflection. "I remember cussing and screaming and throwing down the mic stand, I was nuts.”
Deeper than most dance bands, sexier than any hippie jam bands, Wise Monkey’s early sound, chronicled on their debut Time Capsule, would soon be eclipsed, just like the Sonoran sun they left behind in Pheonix. In 1994, the band packed up and drove west until they came to the end of Interstate 8. Finding kindred spirits in the boho hamlet of Ocean Beach, the band quickly laid down album two, 1995’s Robot Reality. Punctuated by guest appearances (Superunloader’s Jimmy Lewis, Plump’s Dave Carrano), the bands’ signature sound was established by Robot’s opening track, "Thorny Crown."
But it was an uncharacteristically reggae skank that became their biggest crowd-pleaser. "The Waitress Song" married Chad’s irresistible bass line to Alley’s vitriolic lament for the working girl: "I’m working in a place where people come to eat/I’m just the ornament that gives your order feet…/ I don’t complain not even when someone is rude/ ‘cause my revenge is spittin’ on their food…" Equal parts Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, with just a hint of the Clash, it remains one of their most durable tunes. So durable, in fact, that a full-throttled live version of "Waitress" appeared on the band’s third disc, It’s Alive, which is arguably one of the best local recordings of the decade.
Trombonist and flutist Geib looks back on that period fondly, as he ponders his current role as the lone horn player in the band. "We have gone through a lot of changes horn-wise," he explained. "I think our strongest horn lineup was when we had Jason Whitmore on sax, because he was in the band for a long time and we had that chemistry that we had built together. We knew exactly what the other one was going to play at all times… [but now] I think a solo trombone is very unusual -- can you name a band with one?”
"My approach is very different,” he continued, “in that I have to think more lyrically and melodically as opposed to that ‘balls to the walls’ horn section sound… [M]y whole career I've always been trained to blend with other instruments. Now, my horn is all alone up there and there's nobody to hide behind. It's a very naked feeling, but something that I accept because challenges are what make you grow musically. "It's also helped me to dissect my playing, put it under the microscope, and fine tune it more than I ever have before."
Despite devotion to their craft, Wise Monkey must know better than anyone their Achilles’ heel is instability. It may keep them on their musical toes, but it also locks them in a constant cycle of playing catch up with their own song catalog. Just as they get one lineup to gel, they’re soon back to training a new one. As Alley sang on their fourth album’s centerpiece, "Grass Skirt," restlessness and frustration go hand in hand with creative tension: "All this time/ I been working/ to get somewhere/ Now I know I can’t be stopping/ because I’m almost/ I’m almost there."
Alley concurred with my observation that frustration and escape were twin themes in much of her writing. "I do avoid writing sappy love songs," she said. "The escape part comes through in my lyrics, the frustration came when I was sober. It comes from me and my angst." Just before recording 1998's personal, yet uneven Make Believe, vocalist/percussionist Tim Pacecho and sidekick/guitarist Scott Homan joined the band. The period to follow marked WMO’s most stylistically divergent phase. At the time, band members said Pacheco’s strong melodic voice and reggae inflected songwriting reinvigorated them. Later that year, Pathways set the band’s high-water mark commercially, selling 1,000 copies in its first two months alone, and staying on the local top ten for almost a year. Added to the 10,000+ copies sold of their three previous discs, the numbers are starting to add up for the band. Alley, who splits her duties as a vocalist with being a wife and mother, makes it a point to stay realistic, though. "We only do it because we’re really passionate about it," she said. "Money can’t be a priority… you can’t expect to be a rock star--"
"This is all I ever wanted to do though," husband Chad replied. "It’s what I always saw myself doing for a living, period. “But I never thought I’d be doing it with my wife," he added with a laugh. In the fall of 1999, Pacecho and sidekick Homan either left or were fired, depending on whom you ask; they were followed by longtime drummer Ed Fletcher’s split at the end of the year due to the rigors of touring. Once again faced with personnel challenges – and on the eve of their biggest tour yet – WMO decided not to rebuild, but to reload.
Stewart’s childhood friend, Bruce Stodola quickly offered to fill the vacant drum stool – and he brought in a ringer on guitar. Acclaimed session players in L.A. for the past few years, Stodola and Schwartz realized they were the latest in a roster of WMO alumni, but said they welcomed the challenge. "The new guys are working out tremendously," confirmed Chad Stewart when I bring up the personnel issues. The rest of the band agreed, said Chad: “It was almost as if they weren’t new guys at all.”
Small wonder, since Stodola boasts a connection to Stewart that actually precedes either musician’s existence: their parents were friends long before they were even born. That’s no small advantage in ensemble improvisation, which Wise Monkey has always prided themselves on. But the group’s penchant for Sabbath (they did an entire tribute set one night at the Casbah) could be their secret weapon. A jazz-based, funked-up rhythm and groove unit that can flat out rawk: There are worse attributes to look for in a band. And judging by local radio playlists, many do. Wise Monkey remain unfazed. The band’s rock-centric core is back in place, and Geib says "the new guys already know ‘Sweet Leaf.’”
Backing from a major record label grows less important as their word of mouth buzz just plain grows. Selling their brand of homegrown "kinetic soul" is paying the rent for now – deal with the devil or no. Wise Monkey Orchestra may still be unsigned, but they're no longer one of San Diego’s best kept secrets.