Interviewed by Sylvia Juncosa, aka “Sly-J” (from November 2012)
The Atomic Sherpas are a 6-piece ensemble of bad-ass multi-instrumentalists playing their a musical goulash of funk, jazz, bebop, and rock, with wild energy, rockin’ attitude, and driving beats to make you run down onto the dance floor and shake your boot-ayy. At the same time, these are serious musicians who have paid their dues in the practice room. Sparkplug’s Sly-J seeks to learn how they balance the whacky and the wondrous, the experimental and the danceable, the “kickin’ out the jams” with the “makin’ it sound just right”.
The interview begins as they are talking about Marc’s hang-glider experience …
Marc: I did a hang-glider off of Sylmar. The little glider instructor guy said, “Just run and push me as your life depended on it”. So I did
Vince: You pushed him and got on?
Marc: It’s tandem.
SJ: I wish you could surf Shipsterns tandem
Ryan: I surfed my first wave tandem
- Sly and Ryan talk surfing while Marc and Vince talk hang-gliding *
SJ: To introduce the Atomic Sherpas, please tell us your name and instruments …
Ryan: I’m Ryan Dean, national yo-yo champion and drum-smasher
Vince: Vince Meghrouni, particle generator, play saxes and sing
Matt: Matt Lake, play guitar and train wingless falcons
Mike with a funny accent: Lead bass
Carlos: Carlos Alvidrez, principal slide tenor [something unintelligible]
Marc: What instrument do you play, Carlos?
Carlos very quietly like admitting a shameful secret: trombone
Marc: I’m Marc Doten and I’m the typist. I play keyboards.
SJ: Can you give a brief band history for our readers?
Vince: Me and Dan Clucas, cornet player, were on tour in Texas with the band Slowrider. We were humping all this heavy gear,
bass amp, drums up these stairs. We get to the top and I say “We’re not musicians, we’re sherpas!” and Dan says
“That’s a band name!”
We started the band when we got back. We wanted a group that would make people dance, yet at the same time bring in elements that people weren’t usually exposed to. We started it with Dan Clucas, Pat Hoed, Mike Sessa, Lazy Brad Louis, and me.
Later Matt Lake and Carey Fosse got involved. It morphed over time. When Matt and Carey joined, that’s when we became Atomic. So Matt’s an original member of the Atomic Sherpas.
SJ: What year?
Vince: Uh … it was in the beforetimes.
The first record was 2005, called “Blowin it at Ya”. Then I met these guys, the Alvidrez brothers, in class at PCC.
Pat [Pat Hoed, bass] was becoming less and less available because he was announcing the Roller Derby and it looked like it was going to be picked up by ESPN. So we got Mike Alvidrez first, then Carlos. Then Marc joined, and then Ryan.
This has been the formation that has lasted the longest intact. And it’s also the most cohesive.
Matt: Also this is the line-up most willing to try anything musically. And willing to take the time it takes to take a
musical idea and work on it until its right and its groovin’. When people hear this formation of the group now, I feel there is a stronger connection with the audience, I feel the overall musical thing has come up to a different level of collective creativity. But the cohesive factor is what’s really exciting.
SJ: Actually that leads into my next question, which is about your creative process, how you write the songs. Is it all together? A magical synchronicity where someone starts a jam, the others come in and voila, it’s a song? Or does someone write the songs and parts?
Vince: We’ve done it all the ways. Sometimes people bring things in fully written. Matt will write a piece and write out the charts for everyone. Marc’s done that too. We’ve also come up with things at rehearsal. Someone sings a riff, we play that, then we come up with the next section. It’s worked both ways. Primarily I’d say people come in with stuff, and then –
Mark A: – and the band finishes it. Stirs it up
*Band members start making charades of tools they might use to re-shape a song: jackhammers, chainsaws, power tools … explosives! *
Matt: Sometimes you come in with a barely complete idea, and then these guys will take it apart and make it its own thing
Marc: We’ll take something, and We’re not afraid to get stupid with it, if that’s what it needs to make it kickass
SJ: I came from the alt scene, SST Records –
Vince: Me too
SJ: – a lot of people started with punk, and for them “going jazz” was the worst insult. They said when someone has been playing too long they get “too good” and then they “go jazz”. And yet, on paper, jazz is exactly the music I should love the most.
Free-wheeling, willing to improvise, requiring of musical ability, and willing to push the envelope. All those things are so punk rock!
How did jazz fall on the other side of the fence?
Vince: Bad taste
That’s what bebop was when it came out. It was the punk rock of the time. Without all the trappings. What you were just describing is punk rock, but you weren’t describing clothes or or guitar sounds, you were describing attitude. Musical attitude and creative attitude. I think there were corresponding periods in time – it wasn’t called punk rock, but it was cutting edge, people were kinda scared of it, but people were catching on at the grass roots because it was so exciting. I think when you look at art and music there were periods of time like that, that were like the punk rock period. To me, it’s bebop – Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Mingus, to me that was like punk rock. They wore these clothes that made people go “what?”, they had their own language, their own way of greeting. The flat five, slapping hands, that was the Flat Five.
Ryan: My whole thing is I don’t like to define the music I play, because it gives it limitations, to the people that are listening to it.
That’s why I love playing with this band. It’s more freedom. We have a funky blues vibe but the same aesthetic that those jazz guys were using. Except I’m not as good. (laughs).
Vince: Unfortunately jazz players – or any one who develops skill on their instruments – get a bad name with certain people.
They get a bad rap because people say they’ve lost something. A directness. That may happen in some cases but that doesn’t mean that’s how it happens. The skills we’ve acquired, we believe in putting them to the service of conveying things artistically. Its what’s necessary in order to be able to do what we do,
which is change directions in a moments as the mood strikes, or handle different areas of music .Compositionally, or spontaneously. That’s what we want. That ability to turn on a dime. And if it takes getting a certain amount of skill to do that, well that’s why, It’s not to impress everyone or build an edifice to our ego. In other words there may be – I think people had a good reason when they were putting that negative label on jazz but I think there’s a lot of great jazz out there that doesn’t deserve to be thought of as a bad thing.
SJ: They were also putting a bad label on 70s hard rock like AC/DC and Sabbath, that now in that same crowd are thought of as very cool bands. People are messed up.
laughter from all
Vince: When you get people labeling music – they don’t have to go to as many band practices [as we do] so they have more time on their hands.
They have time to think about all that crap and then tell us whats good 🙂
Ryan: You also have people who hate something only because they don’t understand what it is. Or they’re just not open to new things.
Vince: People like to define themselves by what they don’t like.
SJ: Excellent point
Vince: It’s easier to just say “This is crap, that is crap, that other is crap …”
SJ: Did you all have training in your early days? Parents send you to music lessons?
Matt: All of us are trained
Vince: When I was young I wanted to play the drums. So my parents bought me an accordion, to take lessons. I didn’t want to play the accordion, but I
tried it for 2 weeks. My dad loved piano. He wanted me to learn that first, since whatever instrument you want to learn after that, piano will be helpful. But he didn’t want to buy a piano. So he got something with keys on it – the accordion. I was like six and I didn’t take to it.
In high school I had a rock band. My friends were playing Jethro Tull stuff in their garage band, so I got a flute and learned all the Tull stuff. Two of them – guitar player and bass player – both had pawnshop flutes but they gave up trying to learn it. I bought one of those flutes and started learning on my own. Then I got a harmonica from my Dad, and a chromatic harmonica for Christmas. I never learned proper chromatic but I would jam along with
Allman Brothers record on diatonic. I learned by playing to records. I started playing blues harp … I learned pretty quick.
Matt: But did you have lessons?
Vince: I was a shitty student. I never liked doing the homework, playing scales and stuff. In high school I never brought books home … anyway, I had a few lessons, learned the names of the notes, scales. But I learned blues scales on my own, like everyone else does.
Then after high school I got a saxophone. I went to Don Hawkins and took a couple sax lessons. He was a cool dude. Then later I took the bus up to LA
- I was living in Orange County and it took 3 buses – to the late Bill Griebe. I had about two years of lessons from him. At the time I was in the band El Grupo Sexo with Tony Iverton. He was the other sax player in that band. We would go drive up in his car. We’d split the lessons – I’d do one,
he’d do the other.
SJ: And the rest of you had lessons?
Matt: I had piano lessons as a kid, also started cello when I was 9 and did that for about 10 years. But I started guitar when I was 12. That’s what I
wanted to do. By 15-16 I had my own little band. It was called Sister Mary Elephant, after a Cheech n Chong skit. We were playing bars and clubs by the time I was 16. When I was 20 I dropped out of music school, where I’d been a cello major, and moved to San Francisco with a punk rock band I was playing in. Played up there for 5 years in a few groups. Then moved down to LA in 2000 to play in the B-Movie Rats. Did that for a couple years. School, I’ve done that too.
Vince: You’re a doctorate right?
Matt: Working on my doctorate
Vince: You have a Masters
Marc: You just crashed your punk rock cred
- everyone laughs *
Matt: Yeah, I’ve been going to school for years. It’s fun.
SJ: That’s awesome. I’m impressed by that. And you guys? *motions to the Alvidrez twins
Mike: We started on clarinet in school
Marc: Both of you?!
Mark A: Yes, both of us. We did that in middle school. Then when we got into high school it was weird when we were going to sign up for classes –
Carlos: THe counselor put me in the orchestra. Which is strings. The first day, the teacher said “You can’t play clarinet in here. You wanna play
clarinet you gotta join the marching band.” I was not about to do that! I had a friend from my old school who was in the same position. He wanted to play guitar, but there’s no guitar in Orchestra. So he’s like “Well I’ll just learn a string instrument.” And he picked the upright bass. I
didn’t want to be split from him, he was the only kid I knew in the whole school, so I picked up bass as well. Later, during my freshman year in high school, my dad bought me an electric bass and I started playing along with punk records, teaching myself with tabs and shit.
SJ: So your parents were supportive of it
Mike: Oh yes. They wanted us to indulge in extra-curricular activities.
SJ: That’s cool
Vince: My dad bought the sax I use to this day. I had bought one but it got stolen. My dad overheard me talking to someone who was selling a sax and
he said “How much is it?” and “OK I’ll buy it for you.” My Pops was supportive.
Matt: I can’t speak for all of us but we had supportive parents. Paying for lessons, showing up to shows … my Mom came to my first rock show.
She was like this the whole time does a charade of someone bombarded by loud volume desperately covering their ears
But she was smiling!
Vince: My mom yelled at the cops when they forced open the garage door and broke up our band rehearsal.
SJ: And you, Ryan?
Ryan: I was lucky to have some family friends who had a band. It was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In the summer I would go see them play.
I was like five years old. I’d be on the side of the stage. I’d always look at the drummer. And then they would have New Years parties every year, with jams. The bass player, Ron Blair, would sit me down at the drum set, pull out a tape recorder and teach me a beat.
Every year he would sit me down on the drum set. After a few times of that, he called my Dad one day and said “Let’s take Ryan to get a drum set.”
So he came down and took me to Kay’s. Actually, since I had an interest in drums I had already picked up a few pieces. My mom had woke
me up one morning and said “Hey Ryan go get the newspaper.” When I went out, there was a drum set for me. Not all of it – I had pots and pans for cymbals and stuff. Then later Ron came and got me a real drum kit. And I started playing. I had some lessons, but I wasn’t the best student. I didn’t do the homework. I just wanted to play. I would show up and figure out the homework then. A few years later
I started really playing and loving it, and getting out whatever I was holding in.
Then my friends and I started a band called Close to Nothing. Because that’s what we knew – almost nothing. But my dad was from Brooklyn and was a
record collector. He had all these great records. I was really into punk for a long time. But he was playing cool music at home. When he passed away
I opened up my mind and realized there’s a lot of other cool music not just street punk. I started playing along with like every record I found in the house. Later I got into jazz. Someone said to me “if I were a drummer I’d dig this stuff” – it was jazz. My Dad had taken me to see Elvin Jones.
That was the first time I saw wizardry in front of me. After the show Elvin gave me his drumsticks. I took a picture with him. He was really sweet.
A few weeks later he passed away. That was what inspired me on the drums. Watching him I realized there’s a lot you can do on the drums. I definitely want to keep learning, studying drums forever. Other instruments too.
SJ: And Marc, your story?
Marc: My parents exposed my sister and I to a ton of music from day one. They took us to classical concerts when we were little
- but it was modern classical. And we both had piano lessons, and my sister played flute, and later electric bass. I had tons of piano lessons,
was in Orchestra, Jazz band in school. I always played completely insane music. But I never played rock n roll, didn’t even like rock n roll. Except when I was around eleven and had discovered Sabbath. That altered my brain. But in my late teens I was playing improvised noise and what I thought was jazz, but it sucked. I was into Beefheart and stuff. It wasn’t until my early ’20s that I got into rock n roll.
Matt: First album I bought was Van Halen “Fair Warning”. Had my lawn-mowing money saved up, rode my bike to the record shop. I still feel that’s their
SJ: Lastly, Carlos’ story?
Carlos: When I was faced with the prospect of joining the marching band in school I bitched out and instead opted for … for drama. everyone laughs
Two years later, at the sarcastic suggestion from a trombone-playing friend of mine … I had made the comment that all the trombone players were graduating and there would be no one on trombone next year. My friend said I should do it. So I did.
Vince: If they said jump off a cliff would you have done it?
Carlos: The scary part was that I walked straight to the school district office and signed up for the summer school band.
Vince: Maybe they should kill all those programs 🙂
Marc: My high school teacher was a great band teacher, made us learn Beethoven and all that, but then Prop. 13 came and the next year they turned him into a math teacher. It was brutal.
Vince: I had drama in high school, we had a bitchen teacher, he was into Theater of the Absurd. Prop 13 came along, they got rid of her, and made a
math teacher teach drama. We went from that to doing “Harvey”. Which I guess is an okay play, but it’s something that everybody does.
Ryan: I had a nerdy band professor. I was on percussion, off in the back, and could do what I wanted while he was teaching everyone else their instruments. Later I got into marimbas and stuff. Percussion was cool because it had so many options. Also we went on great trips. Hawaii, New
York, Seattle, all this stuff. It was very inspiring. I’m thinking if this what being a musician is like, that’s what I want to do.
Then the Thelonius Monk Institute came as an after-school thing. I met jazz musicians who came and worked with us. But then college came along and I didn’t want to do business, I just wanted to play. I signed up for a jazz program. I later learned that if you want to play music you don’t need to go to school, you need to get out there and play, meet people, listen to records. That’s what all my favorite people did.
SJ: What about being a musician in 2012?
Vince: Think there will be music then ? 🙂
SJ: Will there be music in 2013? I mean, the viability of having a career in music has diminished, it’s become more difficult –
Vince: It never was easy. To me, it’s just … you do what you love. Of course, you do what you gotta do to be career-ish, put your best foot forward,
don’t be stupid, take care of business. But it really comes down to do you want to play or not. If you can make some hay out of it that’s great,
but if you can’t, heck, you’re still playing music.
Marc: The reason its that way is music is its own reward. People figure “We don’t need to pay these guys”
Vince: They exploit us because we are driven to do it
Marc: Yeah they figure we’ll be there anyway. Give ’em a plate of pasta and tell ’em to shut up
Matt: We each get a plate ? 🙂
Vince: All the free two corndogs you can eat!
Vince: Yeah we played a place the other day. We’ve got six guys in the group, they bring a 10-slice pizza. Thanks guys. But yeah, anyways, you just keep doing what you do.
Ryan: I’m definitely interested to see what kind of sounds come out of the next couple years. Because of the information age, we’re in, everything is at your fingertips. Curious to see what kind of music they will make, the people who are coming up now. On the other hand, the majority of people are listening to music that’s a total waste of time. Says a lot about people
Vince: Venues will hire a DJ and the DJ will get paid what they would have paid a band
Matt: or more!
I make my living from music – but most of the money is from teaching, guitar lessons, things like that. The gigs you want to do aren’t always the ones that bring in the good money.
SJ: I hate to be depressing but … well back in the day there was no roadmap. Say you needed to make a press kit for example. You couldn’t just go on the Internet and type search “How to make a press kit”. You had to use your own creativity and smarts to put something together that worked better than what the other bands were doing. Everything was like that, every step of the way. You didn’t have people holding your hand showing you how to do things. No roadmap to follow.
Vince: I booked 2 tours in 1998 – no email, no Internet – yes, it was much harder then!
SJ: So here’s my depressing thought – maybe you can help pull me out of it. Back in the ’80s, I felt such an energy in the scene. I know a lot of people felt that way, not just me. You wanted to have a band, and it wasn’t good enough to be just any band,
it had to be a really good band. And it had to be unique, your own, with your own identity.
All the hard work necessary to make that happen weeded out the people who didn’t really, really want it. Weeded out the half-assed,
the mediocre, and allowed good bands to flourish. Now so many people are jaded, apathetic –
Vince: – It’s always ebb and flow. There are periods when people get tired of the status quo, it gets so boring, rigid, dull,
corporatized that then there’s an explosion [of creativity]. The companies can’t keep up with it, because they don’t know why it’s coming out –
SJ: The labels are always the most clueless!
Vince: Right. What they’re good at is commodifying, taking control, co-opting. When there are these bursts that they can’t understand –
SJ: You were supposed to be cheering me up!
Vince: What I’m saying is, that will happen again and again. Those particulars you are describing I think are just the particulars of that period of time. There will always be a corresponding set of structures that get boring. You’re talking about people being able to follow structures.
It allows more people in, because it takes less effort. They can enjoy the fun part without putting as much work into it or needing as much original thought, and without having to distinguish themselves as much. But then that gets boring, eventually so boring that no one pays attention, until again something new comes out of nowhere. There’s always some people experimenting, no matter what the scene is,
no matter if the scene is explosive and exciting or dead as a doornail, there are always people experimenting and playing. You’d be playing no matter what –
Vince: Then people around start to get bored, and suddenly they’re like hey! I just discovered Sylvia, or these guys or those guys, even though you’ve been playing all along. And then the new thing explodes. There will always be these bursts of creative energy. That’s what punk was,
that’s what rock n’ roll was, that’s what the blues was. And grunge too, despite the silly name, some great music came out of that scene.
And the record companies didn’t know what hit ’em. They didn’t know to do with it, so they signed everything in sight. They don’t know why it’s making money, and they didn’t have anything to do with it, but they notice a band selling 10,000 copies of an indie release, and there’s a spasm of signing. Then they own it all, and they start to control it. They change this and that. Then they start to think that they actually have taste and are musical. Then they start directing, and it really goes downhill. They’re good at commodifying, co-opting, controlling, but they’re not so good at being creative. But they think they are.
SJ: Or recognizing trends. They think they’re good at that, but they’re the last to catch on!
Vince: They grab it by the tail
SJ: Vince, I know you’re in a band for every day of the week, almost. Six bands. I’m wanting to know how you manage to do that.
Vince: Who says I manage? haha … You go crazy, but I like all these different types of music and ways of playing them. I’m up there in the years,
and I’ve met a lot of people over the years who are interesting musically and I want to play music with them, so I try to find a way to let that happen. It just accumulates as you get older. People are going to have to start dying off 🙂
But playing the music is great. That’s what it’s all about. But it’s not easy [having so many bands]. It takes organization. The more you can come up with a system to keep things logistically organized, the less crazy you make yourself and the more time you have to play the music. It’s not easy. But there’s a lot of music I like to make, so that’s why I like to do it.
SJ: I know it’s not easy. Even just the booking of a single show can be a headache. Just the other day I tried to help out a friend fill a
slot on a gig where he’d had a cancellation. I tried to do a good deed for a few friends, and it just turned into stress and wasted time for me, and no good for anyone.
Vince: I know, you want to help people, but you have to learn to say no sometimes.
SJ: So, have the Sherpas gotten to do any travel, touring?
Ryan: Five years straight we’ve played the Carter Ranch Music Festival up in Bootjack, California.
SJ: Ah, right! I remember reading about that!
Matt: Yeah, that was pretty fun
SJ: Because I think you’d do well in Europe. You guys have been there with your other bands
Vince: I’ll be there next month, with another band. A guy named Christopher Owens.
Discussion diverges into the relative difficulties of touring with a six-member band like the Atomic Sherpas, as opposed to a smaller band, like a trio.
Vince: My goal is to get us over to Europe, do festivals, as well as festivals in the U.S. Because when we play a lot of gigs together in a a short
amount of time, the shit just gets crazy!
Marc: It roars!
Matt: It roars and soars!
Vince: And we sleep on floors!
But seriously, that way, playing every night, I’d just love to see what that would do to the group.
- Sly-J’s note: Notice how when the discussion turns to touring, the first thing they think of is the benefit to the MUSIC. Not “oh that would
be fun” or “We’d love to travel” but “Imagine how tight our band would get!” That them thar is some real musicians for ya. **
Vince: And yes, we want to. But with a trio you can just jump in a van. With us you need a sprinter-mobile …
or one of those things they have in Europe –
SJ: With the tall roof.
Vince: Yeah, they’ve had those over there for years
SJ: They’re ahead of us in so many ways
Marc: Like them thar socialism 🙂
- conversation diverges to CDs. The latest one was recorded recently at Marc’s studio *
SJ: Marc, tell me about your studio
Marc: I became an engineer out of necessity, over the years, as I was wanting to record music and couldn’t always get someone to record it. And
I seemed to have a knack for it. So now that’s what I do as my day job. It was an accident. Now I’m way down the road into it. It’s convenient when you want to record your band, you can just do it.
For this latest recording, we just set up in the room like we were at rehearsal, and we just played it.
Vince: Of course there’s baffles and such
Marc: Yes, it’s recorded well, but basically its live
SJ: You were that tight, that together –
Marc: Well you can be the judge of that 🙂
But yes, we had rehearsed pretty hard
Vince: Once a week for us is a big deal
Marc: Some of the music is pretty hard too
SJ: It’s not unheard of, but perhaps a little unusual in rock, to meet drummers that play other instruments too. Like you, Vince, also
play sax and flute. Maybe you can expand upon how that affects your drumming. I have a songwriter friend who’s opinion is that drummers don’t come
up with good drum parts, because they can’t step back and envision the music as a whole –
Vince: [sarcastically] I love how he puts everyone in the same boat! Everyone drives an Acura!
SJ: – on the other hand my bassist Steve Reed has played many roles – drums, bass, bandleader, even sound man – and I believe that’s one reason he works so well with others. He understands their parts. I guess my question isn’t only to you, Vince, but to the rest of you too, being you are also multi-instrumentalists. Does that help you work better with the other musicians, play better together with their parts?
Marc: I can say this: I’m mainly a bass player, and that helps with my keyboard playing. It helps me play less.
You guys might not think so!
The idea is, I could play yet more! A terrifying thought, haha … But really, as a bass player, for years I went through gigs with these keyboard
players who used up every hole, want to play everything twice as fast, and it just drives you nuts! They figure there’s 88 keys, you gotta
use all of them, right? After a while I figured I’m just gonna play nothing for a little bit. Then when I do play something, I’ll get appreciated
for doing that
SJ: Less is more
Matt: Definitely as a 6-piece band, over time we’ve learned to be better listeners, we’ve worked hard to play at the right volume, not to
be too loud. If I do a rock guitar thing and have earplugs on, he’s across the stage and I can’t hear him. If I can take the earplugs out and
get the volume down, I can hear “Ooh, Marc’s doing that. I’m gonna try this.”
Marc: It’s especially true between guitar and piano in a band. All this lead stuff going on.
Matt: Yeah, we could be fighting each other, and fighting the horn section, or we could have an interplay and that’s when it gets interesting.
SJ: That’s a whole other skill, to play with a 6-piece band
Marc: You gotta play less. You gotta step back – and then when it’s your moment you gotta jump on it.
Vince: Some gigs we had to play without horn mics. This is a four-piece rhythm section that’s used to churning away, but then doing those gigs where
we had to turn down enough for the horns to be heard without mics – it was really tough but I think it did a good job of teaching us to listen.
We’ve taken a big step forward as far as our sound and being able to listen to each other.
Sometimes you have to do things that are less comfortable, go through the discipline of it, but it pays off. Those things can suck to do – especially
for Carlos and I, we’re the ones with no mics – but you get through it and it turns into a good thing. The way we’re listening now is pretty
SJ: Overall everyone has to be a little lower
Vince: There’s a rule, everybody has to be louder than everybody else 🙂
Marc: Ultimately you’re trying to get a sound as a group
Matt: And it’s different in every room
Marc: But when it happens, it’s great
Vince: You can make every room sound the same by simply blasting away. Or, you can listen to the room and make that happen – and that’s when it’s