Double Duty

The Cartwheels and the Zen Lunatics share everything but musical genres

While the group had considerable talent and a catalogue of catchy songs that most bands would be jealous of, the group was unable to weather the self-created personnel disasters, and by mid-1994 the Zen Lunatics had ground to a halt.

After a long period of inactivity, Garvin and Hansen Orf decided they enjoyed the band too much to completely abandon the project. They decided their best option would be to try to mend fences with their former bass player. With Padilla back in the fold, the band secured a new drummer, Frank Camacho, and made its return in December of 1994. The next two years saw the group resume its local success as well as the release of a second eponymously titled recording.

But by 1996, the band would face yet another personnel crisis, which would inadvertently spawn the birth of the Cartwheels. "We had re-formed with Gil and Frank on drums. But Frank's life at the time was pretty unmanageable, and he was having some problems and ended up leaving the group."

With Camacho's departure hanging over their heads, and with gigs already booked, Garvin was forced to move behind the drum kit so the band could simply play out and earn money. This somewhat disjointed Lunatics lineup was also in the process of recording material at Garvin's home studio. In what would prove to be a fortuitous coincidence, local singer Serene Dominic and his band, which included keyboardist Jim Speros, were also using Garvin's recording space.

Hansen Orf and Speros had met earlier in the year at a Steve Earle show, where the two discovered they shared a mutual love for the insurgent country music of Earle and a number of other decidedly non-Nashville acts. "Before Serene, I was in my own little groups that would do aggressive kinds of weird country stuff," Speros says. "But I also liked the pop end of things--The Beatles, Elvis Costello--and Serene falls into that. But I really wanted to do the country type stuff, and with Chris being into that realm and the rest of the guys as well, it worked pretty naturally."

As Hansen Orf recalls, "We were recording this Lunatics stuff as a trio, and when Jim was over, we asked him to play piano on a few of the songs. And since the Lunatics were kind of not doing anything else at the time, we started recording a bunch of country songs that I had written a long time ago. And it slowly evolved from there."

Curiously enough, Speros made his debut with the group, not as a part of the Cartwheels, but as a member of a one-off side project known as the Lords of Lounge. The brain child of local music impresario Charlie Levy, the Lords were basically a band conceived for the purpose of playing lounge covers at a special New Year's Eve show at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. The group included the Lunatics and Speros, with Serene Dominic fronting the whole affair. Ironically, the Lords of Lounge will share the bill with the Zen Lunatics at a special "reunion" event being held on January 15 at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, featuring performances from local bands that split up and have reunited.

While the Lunatics' lineup has seen the recent return of original drummer Napoli, the group has had the luxury of basically opening its own shows as the Cartwheels. Although both bands do play out separately, their twin bills at local venues like Long Wong's are feasts for intellectual popheads and country diehards alike.

The Cartwheels' debut album, titled Dang!, will be the first project from the two bands to arrive in stores. Slated for release later this month, the 12-song CD features the best-crafted and most immediately appealing twang-pop currently being played in the Valley. While the record will probably align the group with other prominent practitioners of the much-maligned "alternative country" genre such as the V-Roys or the Old 97s, the Cartwheels' fundamental rooting in pop aesthetics--all the way down to their Beatlesque suits--puts them squarely in a category of their own.

Musically, the Cartwheels' greatest asset may lie in the tasteful honky-tonk tinkling of keyboardist Speros. Alternating between a variety of sounds and styles, Speros' ability to inject songs with various sonic and stylistic textures is one of the elements that sets the group apart from the throngs of other neo-traditional country bands. Speros' cascading piano fills and feel for barrelhouse rock allow the band to play norteno, Cajun and classic honky-tonk-inspired numbers with equal aplomb.

Songs like the disc's opening raveup, "One Dozen Roses," fit perfectly alongside the gentle balladry of a number like "Josephine." Padilla's solid rhythm and Garvin's loose-limbed drumming serve as a perfect bedrock for the natural byplay between Hansen Orf's appropriately twangy guitar and vocal stylings and Speros' melodic touches. The Cartwheels play the kind of country music that affirms the best aspects of the genre but is wide enough in its scope to include elements of a number of musical influences.

For the Zen Lunatics, who plan on releasing their new album sometime in March, genre tags have never been effective or accurate in describing their particular brand of pop. "We just play rock 'n' roll," Garvin says. "And nobody seems to know exactly what that is anymore. But it's what we do. And sometimes it's pretty and sometimes it isn't, but that's the best way to describe what we play."

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