Few bands are as startling visually--or as mixed a bag--as Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys. First of all, there's Wonderland herself, the proud possessor of a truly impressive set of pipes that seem to make all previous comparisons to the Big J (Janis, as in Joplin) seem a bit hasty. Pretty and undeniably female, she eschews the skintight crutches that many female singers rely on to win over a crowd, preferring tomboyishly torn jeans and flannel. Her long, dark hair is punkishly streaked with slashes of color--pink, orange, blue--that often match her sneakers.
Guitarist Eric Dane, with his mop of layered hair and a cigarette dangling from his lips, calls to mind British stringslingers like Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, or Ron Wood, with a dash of the Black Crowes' Robinson Brothers--an impression his fat rhythm chords only reinforce. With his long beard and round eyeglasses, bassist Chris King could be an Austin hippie from the mid-'70s, and Leesa Harrington-Squyres--scowling, her nose ring catching the light as she assaults her drums--looks like nothing so much as one of those girls you simply did not mess with back in high school, lest she plant her foot someplace unpleasant.
Family matters have recently required Harrington-Squyres to quit the band, but the ease with which Chris Axelrad stepped into her slot points up an almost familial quality that has no doubt helped the band dominate the local scene in their hometown of Houston for the past five years. Axelrad was around in the early '90s when Wonderland--who started writing songs at eight--Dane, and later King were frequenting places like Danelectro's and Mickey's Mardis Gras, "just hanging out, jamming, and having fun," as Wonderland puts it. Axelrad was the group's drummer when they "were practicing in this totally un-air-conditioned place on Monday afternoons."
"After a while, we realized that playing and writing songs together was more fun than anything else we were doing," Wonderland recalls. Another pal was drummer and local fixture "Screamin'" Kenny Blanchet. Although Blanchet has his own projects, he's an "honorary member," sitting in and assisting with songwriting whenever possible; the band still does quite a few of his songs. They gradually honed their chops, working on their own songs as well as covers by artists like Buddy Holly, Jimmy Reed, and Bo Diddley. They crept up on regular house gigs and jam sessions around town, but the whole deal was pretty informal.
In 1992 all that changed when the band was invited to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin. "It became a different creature then," Dane says. The lanky guitarist doesn't quite have the background you'd expect from someone playing with a straight-ahead blues-rock group. Born in Paducah, Kentucky, Dane grew up playing "hillbilly" music in a large family. His dad was a Chet Atkins fan, and many of his uncles and cousins picked as well; often they'd all play together. When his parents split up, Dane fell in with an older neighbor with an electric guitar.
"The thing to do when you're out in the middle of nowhere, like Paducah, Kentucky," Dane explains, "is you get yourself a band, learn the songs everybody wants to hear--nobody works back there unless they know [Lynyrd Skynyrd's] 'Gimme Three Steps' and a bunch of Bob Seger--and then you get yourself a house gig at some bar. Then you stay there. I was playing in bars when I was way underage, playing five nights a week."
Dane has a raspy, cigarette-scoured voice, and he rolls his words around and elongates them when he speaks, a delivery that makes him sound like Tom Waits. "It [SXSW] put us in the mindset of 'you better get your shit together now,' and we all of a sudden had to decide a bunch of stuff, like who was going to be our permanent rhythm section. We recorded and mixed 10 songs in three days and went to Austin with that, and then all hell broke loose."
That's easy to understand: Stated plainly, Wonderland--who has lived in Houston her whole life and names Etta James as her hero--has one of the most impressively powerful voices recently heard anywhere, regardless of sex. Able to boom, cajole, promise, growl, and wheedle with equal power, she plays guitar with much the same forcefulness, pounding out chunky rock rhythms and even tackling leads when the spirit moves her. The rhythm section--Harrington-Squyres and King, at least--had the kind of tightness that comes more from intuition than technique (it probably won't be that different with Axelrad). And Dane--when he comps along with Wonderland's guitar--gives a song a rolling momentum that reminds you of two giants going out for a walk. When he leaves the rhythm, it's to inject a spare, lead break cut whole from one of the roots of rock guitar.
Some of the "all hell" the group engendered included capturing Best Blues Band in the Houston Press' Music Awards four years in a row, a whopping seven Bests this year--Song of the Year, Release of the Year, Musician of the Year (Wonderland), and Best Bassist, Drummer, Songwriters, Female Vocalist, and Blues Band--and a slew of other awards and high-profile gigs in between.
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.
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"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.