This month we ask five questions of bassist Al Chan of power pop legends the Rubinoos, talk to violinist Alicia Previn about her new children’s book, review albums from the Paff Booms and Evening’s Empire, plus new Strange Stage Stories from Kenny Metcalf (Tribute to Elton John), Lannie Flowers, Van Bates, and Johnny Vee
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR AL CHAN OF THE RUBINOOS
Bassist Al Chan has toured and recorded with the Rubinoos for just about four decades, helping to provide the world with harmony-driven power pop at its best. Personally, the Rubinoos have been a favorite band since my high school days, amongst Manual Scan’s earliest influences and definitely part of the soundtrack of my teen years. Al joined The Rubinoos in 1980, and I’ve continued to follow the band through the (ahem) decades—a new album from the rockin’ quartet remains something to look forward to. The band’s most recent disc is From Home, a solid listen, but there is also a wealth of wonderful material to explore from the Rubinoos. Dig in!
Who inspired you to play your instrument?
Years before I ever picked up any instrument, I was impressed with the first three sides of Todd Rundgren’s double LP Something/Anything in that he played all of the instruments and sang all of the vocals himself. Traffic’s Stevie Winwood was also a huge inspiration. As far as bass guitar goes, it was initially Jack Bruce and John Entwistle. They really stood out to me and had a lot of personality in their playing. I eventually branched out and studied James Jamerson and Lee Sklar.
How old were you when you gave your first performance? What song did you play and how was it received?
The very first thing I ever played was the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darling Be Home Soon” in front of my Mom. I was 16 years old and I remember that she was sort of impressed that I could sing. My first performance in front of a crowd was playing a party in the dining room of my friend’s parents with my first band. The people who attended the party were very kind and whooped it up the whole time. It was fun but I recall staring at the neck of my bass guitar the whole evening, even when I sang lead! I didn’t want to make even ONE mistake on the bass. LOL. I’m a lot more relaxed nowadays.
Who is your favorite cartoon character and why?
Kimba the White Lion—because he’s cute!
What’s your favorite cover song to play live?
I still love performing “Tonight” by the Raspberries. I loved that song when it first came out and I’m so impressed by how well the Rubinoos play it. We had Raspberries’ drummer Jim Bonfanti sit in with us a couple of years ago. What a thrill! It’s the quintessential power pop song that still packs a wallop.
What’s your favorite thing about being a musician?
Music is a pretty wonderful form of self-expression and, from my point of view, it brings people together. I like making people happy.
STRANGE STAGE STORIES
For better or worse, not everything always goes according to plan on stage.
Van Bates: Playing the Voodoo Room at the House of Blues… I was doing a song and the sound system cut out. My microphone was still working, so I kept rhyming the song. The system kicked back on and I was right on beat. The crowd cheered like we had planned it. Meanwhile I was thinking in my head, “Oh, man, that could have gone terribly wrong.
Lannie Flowers: Once we were playing in a club and during a song, I broke a string. So, while I was singing, I pulled the string off my guitar and threw it behind me. It landed right in the electrical socket where the guitars were plugged in. It tripped the breaker for the power of the whole stage. I could repeat that action a million times and never do that again.
Kenny Metcalf (A Tribute to Elton John): During my second year at the OC Fair, we up’d the show with ramps to stage platforms to run up and down on. I was singing while coming down the ramp and the ramp blended into the stage and I was about a foot off the stage when I stepped and missed the ramp, dropping me to the floor with my butt landing onto the ramp. The rest of me decided, since I was there, to lay back on the ramp and keep singing. As I was getting up during the song, I realized I had torn my pants. So, I did a quick unplanned costume change and the band played until I returned. No one ever knew.
Johnny Vee: I was on tour with the Young American Showcase, and we were playing at a high school auditorium. It was my turn to do a guitar solo, and our drummer was playing along. He whacked on one of his symbols too hard and it fell off of the drum riser, slicing my guitar chord right in two, directly in the middle, one 40-foot cord into two equal 20-foot lengths. I went back and I picked up the ends of the broken cord and I just started twirling them around, while our drummer continued playing. Eventually a stagehand brought me a new guitar chord, and I just carried on. We got a standing ovation for THAT.
ALICIA PREVIN GETS BOOKED…
Although best known as a violinist, Alicia Previn has also ventured into the world of children’s books in recent years. Her latest, What Paradise Found, is a picture book with 32 full-color pages of text and illustrations dealing with the challenges that children face when they and their families relocate. It’s available on her website, through Amazon, and soon Barnes & Noble. A series of short videos will be launched next month to promote the books.
What does Previn hope readers will get out of her book? “Moving is considered one of the most stressful emotional events in life,” she said. “For children it can be especially overwhelming to pack up your room and go to a new school, lose your friends, and start all over. Through the journey of a girl named Paradise, I hope many will find inner strength and the ability to cope with life changes that are all too common today.”
Previn notes this book has been a long time coming. “It started out decades ago as a dream I wrote down and a coloring book I made,” she explained. “Recently my art professor saw the book and praised the illustrations, so I reworked it as a vehicle to help children deal with a major problem.” She can personally attest to the issue at hand. “I’ve had to move more times than I can count, so the story of [the character] Paradise is relevant for me, as I know it will be for many.”
While this book is barely out, there are already plans for more literary works from Previn. “I have more books in various stages that will be created.” She said. “What Paradise Found is number four in a series called A Love of Nature. After its launch on June 7th we are planning to release my other three books as a package. That includes The Earthworm Book (2009) with narration designed for beginning readers, my Earthworm Song, and other fun music out of the Modern Bakery studio and David Ybarra. Also included are The Strange Disappearance of Walter Tortoise, about the desert, and Give Bees a Chance, all about bees and where our food comes from.”
Beyond writing, Previn has been teaching music and doing daily live-stream broadcasts with her desert tortoise, Walter. “It ties in nicely with talking about my nature books,” she said. “People around the world are logging in to spend “Walter time,” relaxing, and watching him chow down on zucchini slices and broccoli.”
For more info on the books, her forthcoming album or how to take violin lessons from Alicia Previn: www.AliciaPrevin.com
The Corner Laughers: Temescal Telegraph (Big Stir Records 0029)
The basics: Ten folk pop/ indie rock, often ukulele-led, tracks from this Redwood City-based quartet. Featuring Karla Kane (v,u), Khoi Hunyh (p,b,g), KC Bowman (g,b,k) and Charlie Crabtree (d), their fifth album includes nine Kane originals and a new song from Martin Newell (Cleaners from Venus) called “Goodguy Sun.” It’s modern music that will appeal to aficionados of the Zombies, mid-period Kinks, the Bangles, the Beatles, latter day XTC, and other groups that rely on a mix of witty lyrics, clever chord changes, and melodic twists. Everyone contributes aural gems to the mix, particularly Bowman with some impressive lead-guitar work, custom fit to the tunes, such as on the twang and reverb solo in “The Accepted Time.” However, the secret weapons here are Kane’s sweet, warm vocals, especially when backed by her own harmonies in addition to the superb production/ mastering by Bowman, which give the album the feel of a lost sunshine pop classic.
As for the songs on Temescal Telegraph, it’s such an embarrassment of pop riches that it’s hard to pick a favorite. If you are a fan of the aforementioned groups, you’ll find a lot to love here. Currently on repeat on the office hi-fi system is the bluesy, New Orleans swamp barrel house piano, by way of Nilsson tune, “Changeling,” complete with a terrific fret run from Bowman that would make James Burton proud, but it’s a hard call. Also really good is the lead track, “The Calculating Boy,” which somehow manages to channel Andy Partridge and Phil Spector—love the nod with the castanets. Another favorite is the rockin’ “The Lilac Line,” an updated version of a tune released previously by Kane, which is a nice contrast to the dream pop vibe of the following song, “Loma Alta.” And so on.
Bottom line, pop fans need a copy of Temescal Telegraph—and while I’m at it, I recommend their earlier recordings as well, especially “Martha (Cincinnati, 1914),” where the band turns a truly sad story into a 1:36-minute pop gem. www.cornerlaughers.com
Evening’s Empire: Alive for Us (self-released)
The basics: Eleven well-crafted alternative rock songs from San Diego’s Evening’s Empire. Featuring Sam Strohbehn (g, k, v), Shannon Sabin (g, v, b—also in the Dinettes), David Skolnik (b, k, v), and Charles Wiley (drums), Alive for Us is as strong a debut as you could hope for, with hard rocking, hook-filled tunes matched to excellent production. The lush studio work really showcases the material, giving everything an atmospheric, dense sound that brings out nuances in the songs. It all adds up to an album that’s a great listen, start to finish.
Fans of alternative rock will find there’s not a second wasted here, not a note out of place. Indeed, Alive for Us, is a veritable collection of singles, with a refreshing variety in its tunes. “Wake Up Sunshine” is a swaggering riff rocker, which includes a guitar break that touches on Fagen or Becker. “She Can Save” adds New Wave dance rhythms, but I especially like the section beginning at 1:30 that reminds me a bit of a 1970’s Italian horror-film soundtrack. Meanwhile, there’s echoes of ’80s post-punk guitar rock to be found elsewhere—think Bob Mould, Red Rockers, the Call through a filter—a song like “In the Open” blasts out of the speakers, all with driving beat, adrenaline, and chiming guitar. Then there’s the album’s first single, “Movies (Who I Really Am),” a custom-made stadium rocker, complete with an anthemic chorus.
But really, you could pick any track off this album and it would slot well against most of what’s currently on the airwaves; this is the definition of radio friendly. If I were to cite a negative, it’s that Evenings Empire is going to have a tough act to follow for album number two. www.eveningsempire.com
Paff Booms: Di Paff Booms (SNAP! Records)
The basics: Ten tracks of garage-driven, Spanish language power pop from Spain’s Paff Booms. Featuring Clemente Vadillo (g, v), Paco Soto (g), Luis Rodríguez (d), and Paco Herrerías (b), this is party music, meant to be played loud and start off a weekend, or just kick off some mid-week cobwebs. Favorite song here is “Un Dia Perfecto,” a storming minor-chord rocker with an instant ear worm in the chorus. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll find yourself humming along, but there’s plenty to admire amongst all of the tunes here. The unifying trait amongst them is a driving energy, especially evident in the album’s title track, or in “Ven A La Fiesta,” which, as might be expected of a song that includes the word “party” in the title, is 2:38 minutes of youthful exhuberance. If you’re a fan of power pop or just enjoy your rock ‘n’ roll with an extra dose of hooks, Di Paff Booms will be a welcome addition to your vinyl collection. www.thepaffbooms.bandcamp.com