By Benjamin Leatherman
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If you've caught a recent show featuring the "Maximum Pop" sound of the Zen Lunatics or their alter ego and frequent opening band the Cartwheels, you may have noticed a big similarity.
It's not the fact that both groups wear sharp '60s-style matching suits, or even that three-fourths of the Zen Lunatics play in the country-inflected Cartwheels. It's something a bit deeper, the sense that both groups are inspired by a unifying musical touchstone that bridges the gap between the power-pop and the rousing honky-tonk sounds of the two groups.
"Buddy Holly is a total inspiration for everything because you can kind of go either way with it," says Chris Hansen Orf, Cartwheels front man and Zen Lunatics guitarist. "You can look at his rock side, which leads right into The Beatles and that vein of music. Even punk music is drawn in a way from that, you know, simple, catchy songs. But you can go the other way with it, and Holly was a Texan who grew up listening to Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams."
It doesn't take more than one show for most people to conclude that both of these two groups are pregnant with musical potential. And although the Zen Lunatics are probably better known, in large part because they've been around in one version or another since 1991, the story of how these two bands formed can actually be traced all the way back to Garvin and Hansen Orf's junior-high days.
Garvin and Hansen Orf have been musical foils since becoming friends in the seventh grade. Garvin, who plays guitar in the Lunatics, began his career as a drummer but didn't take either instrument seriously until a mutual friend of his introduced him to Hansen Orf. Fashioning themselves as Moon Valley's version of Lennon and McCartney, the pair began playing and recording their own material almost immediately.
"We couldn't really play anyone else's material, so we just started writing our own," Hansen Orf recalls.
"It's funny because we have a chronologically recorded history of our songs since we were like 12 years old. The early stuff is pretty horrible. But obviously our voices have changed since then," says Garvin.
Garvin, Hansen Orf, bassist Gilbert Padilla and drummer Ric Napoli all spent their formative years in north Phoenix. While the others went to Thunderbird High School, Garvin spent much of that time shuttling back and forth between Phoenix and California, while the others cut their teeth playing together in a number of different configurations.
"Me and Gil played in a kind of cowpunk thing called the Hick Town Daisies, and we actually opened for the Meat Puppets in 1986," recalls Hansen Orf. In the late '80s, Garvin, Napoli and Padilla formed a group known as Fourth Generation Rain, which played for a brief time until Garvin decided to move back to California. Garvin describes that group's music as "sort of really depressed dark pop songs." As Padilla remembers, "They were happy jingly songs about suicide."
In the early '90s, Hansen Orf decided he wanted to put another group together and looked to his old high school friends. "Rick, Gil and I were talking about getting something together when Terry decided to move back, and things kind of fell into place then."
By late 1991, with Garvin back permanently, the Zen Lunatics were born. With Napoli and Padilla anchoring the rhythm, and Garvin and Hansen Orf sharing vocal duties and co-fronting the band, the Lunatics began playing their brand of uniquely crafted pop, garnering some early recognition opening for a number of prominent local groups.
"We got some shows with the Feedbags first, and Live Nudes, as well as the Gin Blossoms," says Hansen Orf. "Like the third or fourth show we ever played together was opening for the Gin Blossoms. That was pretty nerve-racking at the time."
The Lunatics' early live sets featured a combination of material from the members' previous groups as well as a new batch of Garvin and Hansen Orf originals. Unlike most Tempe bands at the time, the Lunatics' particular brand of pop wasn't influenced by the prevailing "desert rock" sound but rather by the group's unabashed love for the timeless sounds of British Invasion rock and American Garage music of the '60s.
Carving out a respectable local niche, the group put out a self-released cassette in 1992 called Juanita. Despite regular gigs and enthusiastic audiences, the band hit rough waters in late 1993 when it made what the members now describe as the "stupid mistake" of giving Padilla his pink slip. Not long afterward, a dissatisfied Napoli quit the group as well. The band pressed on using a number of temporary and semi-permanent rhythm players, but the camaraderie--both musical and personal--was gone from the band.
As Garvin recalls, "I just remember playing this one gig and turning around and looking at the guys that were playing with me and thinking, 'This is my band? I don't even recognize these guys.'"