The last time Jimmy Vespa and Bobby Lava Noxious did something they really didn't want to do, they quit the Hypno-Twists, a band they helped start and watched as it slowly fell apart. Now the regrettable deed at hand is how to word the dreaded "Drummer Wanted" ad for their new band, after having exhausted any and all personal referrals for even a semi-reliable timekeeper. The debut gigs of the Jack Straws, the band Vespa and Noxious formed with former Hypno-Twists bassist El Tato, were quickly booked and just as abruptly canceled when the guy they'd slotted in on drum stool proved making like Alexander Graham Bell and inventing the phone call. He simply bailed out. Nothing like 115-degree weather to filter out the dead wood, huh?
"I just hate doing an ad in New Times," grumbles Noxious, sweat still pouring down his Mohawked head, as he ducks in from the sunny inferno raging outside the Willow House. "You've just got to weed through so many freaks. Guys who want to change the band name right off. Or want to be the leader instead of the missing piece in a band that's got everything else in place."
As if to demonstrate the late group's local popularity, a slow-talking caffeine addict sitting a table away just starts asking them what happened to the band.
"You're looking at 'em," Noxious informs him proudly. "Three members left but the core members stayed. For now, anyway."
To many fans, the band that electrified audiences with its diverse mix of garage rock, exotica and spaghetti Western swagger lost a large chunk of its live excitement, not to mention its video projector, with Noxious' sudden exit last year. It's no secret that a noticeable drop in attendance at the band's Wednesday night residency at the Emerald Lounge can be traced in the weeks following his departure.
"I cried about it for days. I regretted not being there to go to London. That trip was in place before I left. There was just a lot of creative differences in the band," Noxious admits. According to Noxious, a division in the band was already in place around the time the band's name first started appearing in hyphens. "When we formed the band, we talked of utilizing our individual strengths, about goals, where we wanted to be at a certain time, and it all just kind of fell apart. It's a lot of work to be a popular band, and I was discouraged when I'd hear things like, It's 10 o'clock, are we done rehearsing?'
"I was doing everything from the business end," he continues, "the graphic design, the recording and engineering the recordings at Studio Z mixing and mastering, spending eight to 10 hours a day on the Hypno-Twists, and there was no motivation from the other people."
Noxious was spoiled by his previous band, the popular ska outfit Kongo Shock, which was able to make music its full-time gig, tour, have national distribution and write original material almost daily. In contrast, Noxious says his former bandmates pushed for a 50/50 split on covers and original tunes in the live set, and that was one of the chief reasons he left.
"We all grew up with that '80s thing and saw bands like the Cynics and the Salvation Army, the Three O'Clock all do half originals, half covers," says Vespa. "I'd rather do 75 percent original, to be honest with you. But [Jelly Roll] Joel and Laura [Tula Storm] seemed comfortable with half and half." The impetus for working on even more covers was a proposed gig backing up Rudi Protrudi of the Fuzztones.
"Rudi asked us to back him up, we'd go on tour with him and do his material. That would've been an honor," says Vespa. "We learned three of his songs and we did 'em live, but the tour didn't pan out. We went to Rudi's birthday party, which was pretty cool, and met the remaining Doors and Ian Astbury of the Cult. But quite frankly we were a band with a lot of new originals and a new album, and here we were wasting all this time learning Fuzztones songs every practice. I know that pissed Bob off."
What Noxious noticed on the Pacific Northwest tour the band undertook before his split was there was no camaraderie, no hanging out. "We'd go to a town and everyone would scatter. We'd get to San Francisco and if someone had a relative or a friend . . . they'd all jump into a car with them and say, We'll see you at the show.' That was weird. I'd never been in a band like that," says Noxious, shrugging. "When you're on the road in a strange place, you watch out for each other, these are your buddies, and you have fun with each other and shitty times with each other. That's just part of the experience. It was odd for me to not be buds with the guys in my band."
Says Vespa, "See, I'd never been in a band before, so I just felt like that was the norm. The lack of solidarity in the band escalated in London and that broke Tato. When we got there, we were given a flat to stay at and there wasn't enough room for all of us, so it boiled down to What are you guys going to do?' You guys' being me and Tato. We slept on a bunch of hardwood floors in different flats and spent one night freezing in a boat on icy waters. When we got to the airport, Tato just said, Fuck you guys.' I told him he was crazy forfeiting his return ticket, but he was adamant. He said, I'll worry about leaving when they throw me out of the country in six months.'" Tato stayed and was able to support himself by doing paintings, playing in a jazz combo, touring the English countryside and, more regrettably, selling his electric bass to get a return ticket.
When the band returned without Tato, there was no doubt that the 'Twist was on its last legs. This despite having an impressive five-song vinyl-only album recorded at Toe Rag studios, the same place the White Stripes recorded their last album with the same producer. The short album quickly sold out and is now incredibly hard to find.
Almost as hard to find as drummers are bassists, but the band replaced Tato with a like-minded fan who later became the group's manager, one Thomas "Oog" Bedlham. "I probably only played 10 or so gigs with them and had probably less practices," Bedlham jokes. "Because the time was so short, I felt more like a hired hand than a member of the band. I can't say I was very good."
Hard words from a tall fellow, but all the same, once he moved on, he was poised to make his post-Hypno-Twist exodus out of Phoenix. But 98 hours before leaving for Boston, Bedlham and migrating Twists drummer Philthy Phil switched their flight itinerary to New York. "It was about as far away from Phoenix and as close to London we could get without actually living in London, which, despite our efforts, was not a possibility," reasons Bedlham, who has a new band with Phil called the Rock and Roll that is also having trouble finding a drummer (Phil's first instrument was guitar, and he's wielding the ax once again) but is optimistically mulling over some possible hopefuls in the wings. No shows are booked yet as he and Phil had to concentrate on finding jobs in the Big Apple. "You really notice how hard the economy was hit with the giant market drop and the events of 9/11 when you actually try to look for work and see shops you went into on Monday boarded up on Wednesday. Philthy Phil deejays a '60s rock/exotica, surf night at a place called Otto's Shrunken Head that we can probably play at." He likens it to "a cross between the Emerald and the Bikini with much less smoke," thanks to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-cigarette campaign.
The cultural scene in New York was the big draw for Phoenix-Phrustrated Phil, who maintains "the music scene and the cultural scene in Phoenix are basically nonexistent. How can anything happen when everyone is 20 miles away from each other? I mean, people don't even know how to have a conversation, much less start a scene." He promises his new band's music will be similar to the Hypno-Twists' "and also more loud and dirty as well as diverse. There should be no rules in a rock 'n' roll band, and that is what will keep us a step or two ahead of the rest. We have some tricks up our sleeve -- just wait."
And then there were two. Undeterred, Joel and organist Tula Storm were the only ones who made the intended Boston move. "We have some connections in Boston, and it's very accessible to NYC, Philly, Providence, etc. Joel's job transferred to Boston as well, so we'll be based here," says Storm via e-mail. As for the scene they left behind, she says, "There are several fairly new bands in Phoenix heavily influenced by '60s sounds or using retro equipment, and creating their own thing -- such as the MadCaPs, the Cryin' Shames, the Fiendish Thingees. As long as people are passionate and creating something new, there will be a scene, but I wouldn't categorize it as strictly retrorock.' I do think the Hypno-Twists had gone as far as we could go in Phoenix."
Now when you address the couple, it's as two thirds of the Misteriosos. Like his brother Phil, Joel insists he will continue to play the same exotic mix as the Twists, "with an eye on keeping making the raw stuff sound more raw. We'll be branching more in some of the directions the Hypno-Twists went in besides garage, such as spaghetti Western, exotica, and Latin. Being a three-piece gives us more freedom to travel. The image will be a bit different."
The New York and Boston camps keep in touch regularly with Vespa, with Storm and Joel still holding out hope for the possibility of Vespa making the move to Boston. For his part, Noxious produced and mastered recordings for the Rock and Roll just before they left and says they have a good shot at making a name for themselves in New York.
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As for the band with the most ex-Hypno-Twist members, the Phoenix faction is still deciding on what to call itself. "Baha Nuevo is at the top of the list," explains Noxious, "sort of like mariachi sci-fi. I need a strong visual theme to drive me for our shows and our fliers."
"I'm really warming up to the idea of wearing traditional mariachi costumes with NASA badges on them," says Vespa.
"Actually, I'm thinking space suits with a lot of tassels," says Noxious, laughing.
That the free-flow exchange of new ideas absent in the Hypno-Twists' last days is happily abundant in all three fledgling groups is an encouraging sign. While it lasted, the Hypnos' huge fan base crossed over into the ska and punk contingency that had nowhere to go after Noxious' last band Kongo Shock broke up; it snagged the retro crowd that the McCune brothers Phil and Joel brought from their earlier dalliance in Cruel Daddy Doom; and Vespa and Storm, who were never in bands, seemed to attract new people who never went to shows. Together they managed to bring holdout contingencies from Scottsdale and Tempe out into Phoenix with the promise that something cool was happening somewhere in the Valley of the Sun. Maybe something cool will happen here again. But maybe Noxious, Vespa and Tato will hightail it to New York and you'll have to use up those remaining frequent-flier miles to see it.