Going against typecasting

Don't call Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys a blues band

It hasn't been easy sledding, though. "Through the years, things have happened for us, then they don't happen," Dane explains. Two early plums--a publishing deal with Warner-Chapell and representation by Philip Morris--later disappeared almost simultaneously. Different booking agents have come and gone--after inflicting tours of varying degrees of horror--and the drummer's spot never seems to be filled by one person for very long. Harrington-Squyres--on board for several years--seemed to bring a welcome bit of stability, but now she's gone, the better to care for her nine-year-old child.

"Sad things happen for good reasons," Wonderland says philosophically. "Lord have mercy, no band should ever take precedence over your family." She's a little less certain about the "blues band" tag that many hang on her and the Imperial Monkeys, however.

"It always blows my head off, every year, when we win, or even when we're nominated [for Best Blues]" she says with a laugh. "It just kills me, because Houston is where guys like Joe Hughes live. I mean, we're a great band--I think--at least a good band, and we have a great time, but we're not the best blues band in Houston, Texas."

"There are some bars that have wanted us just to play blues all night long, but we'd rather do our stuff," Dane notes, adding that he and Wonderland prefer a wider definition. "I like to say we're a rock 'n' roll band," Wonderland explains, "because then we can play a country song, or a blues song, or a polka or whatever, and it all comes out sounding like us. If I could write a whole bunch of good blues songs--if that was what was in my heart--that'd be cool, but we're still kids. I think to call us a Gulf Coast band is pretty accurate, because there's a lot of good bands that come through here, and each one rubs off on you a little bit."

Both Wonderland and Dane seem a bit mystified by all the attention; despite being Houston's hot ticket for half a decade, they haven't developed the standard stock of stories or glib delivery that pros use to make themselves seem wide open when they're being anything but. Wonderland mumbles an almost uncomfortable "thanks" when you ask her about her impressive voice; if you press her to talk about it, she'll offer a dismissive "I holler" with a nervous half-laugh. "We're just a band," she says of the group. "We play a little bit of everything to keep ourselves entertained--it's more fun that way."

Indeed, the band uses the stock rock approach as a vehicle to visit all sorts of more narrowly defined genres, skipping through Stones-y rockers, surfish rave-ups, and bloozy, slide-driven stompers that Foghat might envy. It's all presented with a certain economy, however. "Sometimes we have songs that kind of lend themselves to getting freaky and going on forever, but most of our stuff is very simple," explains Dane, who doesn't believe in "favorite" guitarists but has a special admiration for Mick Taylor-era Stones. "It's like 'here's the song.' I'm really not that into playing guitar solos--I'd rather play rhythm, play the song, than wank off on some solo."

CW&TIM recently signed with Houston-based Justice Records and released Bursting with Flavor, their fourth and best album. The band is so notable--and noticeable--live that their recorded work tends to fall a bit flatly on the ear; The Austin Chronicle recently gave Bursting a right vigorous pummeling on the basis of poor songcraft.

"Well, I do like live bands more than albums," Wonderland admits, "but we work on songwriting all the time. I think that each time we go in [to the studio] we get better, but face it, we've played thousands of shows and only been in the studio four times."

"It's always kind of a rush job," Dane says of the band's creative process. "It's like, 'It's time to record, who's got a song? Or an idea? Or an inkling of an idea?' and then we throw it together and make it work." When the whole band gets together and works out a song is when it gets its real shape. "Usually it falls into place and happens," Dane explains. "I'm really proud of the songs on the new album, especially the songs Carolyn and [Screamin'] Kenny wrote."

Currently CW&TIM are staying on the road, trying to expand a loyal Houston fan base into something like a national following. Although her voice--strong yet flexible, like a length of rebar and prone to deliciously boisterous belting--lures people into thinking of Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys as a blues band, Wonderland's not too worried about it. "Country, blues, rock," she says. "Chuck Berry goes down the same everywhere."

Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys play Poor David's Pub Friday, June 20.

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