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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.'"
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."
As oblivious to trends as the Zen Lunatics may be, Garvin's back-to-basics retro ethic is shared by a number of other high-profile bands currently navigating the pop landscape, including Ward Dotson's Liquor Giants and Los Angeles-based retro group the Wondermints. Like their pop brethren, the Zen Lunatics freely plunder the 1960s British and American musical vocabulary, but unlike those groups, the Lunatics attempt to look past the intrinsic limitations of the three-minute pop song and extrapolate something greater. The band does this without losing sight of the essential truth that pop (or whatever name is bestowed upon it) has to remain fun and tuneful. The Lunatics' live shows are ample proof of their belief in this as they frequently delight (or torment) audiences with their own skewed but inspired takes on '70s cheese like Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise" or the "Theme From Laverne and Shirley."
As far as their original material goes, it's clear that Garvin and Hansen Orf's long-standing musical kinship and shared sense of humor thoroughly permeate their songwriting. Two of the band's signature numbers take a critical, albeit comical, look at the concept of celebrity in the current age of media saturation. On "Media Sensation," the group pokes fun at the instant celebrity that notorious behavior bestows upon mediocre actors.On another song, the group sings in mock tribute to Drew Barrymore.
The long-standing personal and professional relationships of the four men serve their music well. Napoli's skillful drumming and Padilla's melodic rhythm lines allow Garvin and Hansen Orf to explore a wide range of exquisite pop sounds. Catchy hooks and tasty melodies are the ultimate foundation of the Lunatics' sound.
The only disappointing aspect of the Zen Lunatics' work has been a woefully shabby discography that fails to accurately represent the vast songwriting output of either Garvin or Hansen Orf. "We've recorded lots of stuff, but none of it's come out sounding right," Garvin says. "Just nothing really worth putting out. The feeling and the whole recording process has been a pain. We've had more luck in the 10-by-12 room in my house than anywhere else." The band feels that that situation will be resolved soon with the release of its first fully realized album. Garvin adds that the band has recorded and mixed more than 40 songs for the album.
Generally regarded by their local peers as one of the most talented conglomerations of musicians currently working the Tempe scene, both groups' fortunes seem to be looking up at the same time. With stable lineups firmly in place and the dual CD releases imminent, the Lunatics and Cartwheels should be offering up their equally diverse and unique brands of music for a while. Somewhere in the afterworld, Buddy Holly is probably smiling.
The Cartwheels and the Zen Lunatics will be playing at Long Wong's in Tempe every Wednesday in January.