The Chocolate Watchband
Louder Than War is proud to present this exclusive in-depth interview, conducted by Nathan Whittle, with the genuinely legendary psych-garage originals.
As they prepare for the release of their new album, This Is My Voice, the band talk about the record, influences, history, outlook, creative process, and how things have changed since the band broke out in the 1960s. Sit back and enjoy…
Breaking out of the West coast counter culture scene of the 1960s, The Chocolate Watchband, influenced by the British Invasion sounds, shook with an intensity and drive that saw them drench themselves in psychedelia while at the same time foraging an early proto-punk trough. Their influence has proved more potent than their sales were at the time, overshadowed by other groups and ripped off by music fat cats, theirs is a tale of returning to the stage to find that their fanbase has grown in the intervening half a century. Coming out of a riot on Sunset Strip, now, as they ready the release of their new album, they sit down with Louder Than War to talk about how things have changed since those heady days, how they’ve made their way back, and how they see themselves in today’s scene. So, sit back and take a ride with one of the original voices of the psych garage-rock scene.
LTW: So, the new album is called This Is My Voice. How did you find your voices again? What inspired this comeback?
David Aguilar (vocals): The Watchband actually found its “voice” when Mike Stax (editor of beat/garage magazine Ugly Things) talked us into doing the 66/99 show in San Diego. I had begun writing songs and playing a Korg synth in 1999 after leaving music for 30+ years where I had never touched an instrument or sung a song during that interval. I became an astronomer instead.
First it was the calls from 13-14 year olds across the country who had tracked me down at my aerospace company asking if I was the same David Aguilar of the Chocolate Watchband and then proceeded to tell me how much they loved our music. The second shot across my bow came when the Nuggets albums came out and I started getting calls for interviews. Then there was that Rolling Stones edition featuring the “Best 100 Rock Albums in 1968?” and there was my big face staring back at me on page 72. One Saturday in 1997, freshly liberated from a 20+ year marriage, I randomly stopped at music shop in Boulder next door to the liquor store where I needed a Balvenie single malt scotch. I walked around the music store floor plinking on various pianos when I landed squarely in front of a used Korg X-3 that had my name written all over it! It said-take me home! So, I bought it, set it up, played CDs of other bands and taught myself how to play. Soon, songs started popping out of my head, every one of them different. I was writing and learning how to play synth keyboard, a new Tele I picked up for $200, and how to do basic recording on GarageBand all at the same time.
LTW: How did that develop into the full band then?
DA: Two other Chocolate Watchband albums were cut before this one. The first album “The Redding Sessions” had Gary (Andrijasevich) on drums, Billy Flo on bass, Ned Torney on keyboards and Phil Scoma on guitars (all Chocolate Watchband members at one time or another). It’s a rough unreleased album but it does have its rocking moments! My favourite songs on it are “I Can Make Your Dreams Come True” and “Laid”. Then Tim, Gary and I did “Get Away” recorded in an old converted chicken shed in the San Jose foothills. Michael Reese added guitar tracks in Boulder where I was living at the time. My favourite songs from that album are I Miss Love, Hope, So Screwed Up. We are performing So Screwed Up on the road in our new Chocolate Watchband live set.
LTW: So what inspired this comeback?
Tim Abbott (guitar and co-producer): I don’t think this is so much of a comeback as just a continuation of what we wanted to do. We love performing and creating new music. The title shows that we still have something to say, especially with everything going on in these days.
Alec Palao (bass): I’ve been playing bass with the Watchband for almost two decades and had known the band’s members for a decade prior to that, even. While it’s true that the group hasn’t been a constant within that time, we nevertheless have come together regularly to play festivals, record and enjoy the simpatico that the core band has always seemed to enjoy. So as Tim says, it’s not really a comeback, just another opportunity to demonstrate that the Chocolate Watchband remains a creative unit, one that can present fresh material alongside the classics with an equal amount of energy and conviction
DA: What inspires me the most? Good dental hygiene! Kidding! We got ripped off by our manager and record company when we were kids. ALL our friends made it big and had hit records. We didn’t. But it’s never too late. We have our own songs to sing and there are a lot of people out there that pop and hip-hop just doesn’t resonate with. They crave music with melodies and “lyrics” they can relate to in this crazy world around them. THAT’S WHY WE STILL DO THIS!
LTW: The album clearly deals with much of what we see in society nowadays; poverty, corruption, fake news. Was there any one incident you can recall being a catalyst for the theme of the album?
TA: I wouldn’t say it was one incident: more of a build-up of many things over time that have gotten out of balance.
AP: As the chief songwriter, David guides a lot of the subject matter, but certainly we all feel the same way to greater or lesser degree. I believe he gets a lot of inspiration from online and cable news.
DA: I am a very liberal futurist. To me conservatism is an attempt to preserve a world that never really existed and stop it from changing into something that’s different. The world they feel most comfortable in progresses very slowly. I have been a fan of futurism ever since I was a kid and read Orwell’s 1984 or started watching sci-fi movies. As an astronomer, planets, stars, galaxies, the Big Bang, the expanding universe are all connected together to this very special planet called Earth by one disruptive species that has existed for a mere 20,000 years. Its call to fame? It possesses the ability for better or worse to change living conditions on their home planet.
Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Humans have cosmologically just arrived but we are remodelling our world as never before with rapidly growing numbers of people to support – heading to 10 billion soon – dwindling natural resources, climate change, politicians owned by large corporations who do their bidding, the web for spreading massive amounts of disinformation, and Lil Xan is worth $3million for that mumbling Youtube act! I feel our songs rightfully reflect the world as it is today. Isn’t that what rock groups are supposed to do?
LTW: The title track neatly balances the idea that nowadays with the Internet we all have voices, while at the same time it can feel that we are shouting into the abyss and wading through trolls. How do you feel about putting your first album out into that climate?
DA: I’ve shouted into into the abyss before, it feels good! Putting out a new album by a band that hasn’t expressed their voice for decades is actually a plus! As individuals our love for music has grown, morphed, adapted to the world around us and is genuine. I usually write and record the instrumental part of a song first. I hear a riff in my head or a tone on a guitar that inspires something and within 20 minutes, the basic song is recorded, tracks overlaid and a scratch vocal thrown in just to feel the intonations of the song. It may stay that way for a day or a week. Listening to it in the car, the words come. The song tells me what it is all about. I go back into the studio, write out the lyrics and then re-record the vocals. From there-it goes to California for the band to evaluate and maybe record.
TA: I think it’s important for us to try to do something that helps to make things better, rather than just focusing on our own pleasure and entertainment.
AP: It’s a theme as old as the ages, that has been given a new and distressing twist with the epidemic of narcissism that social media has engendered. Certainly, the original Watchband generation was all about social commentary. As slightly younger child of punk rock, I too come from an era where you had to say something meaningful in song, not the mindless inanities and self-indulgence found in most modern pop music.
Derek See (guitar): I’m hoping that more artists hear it and realize it’s OK to take a stand for what they believe in. It can be appalling to read some of the online troll comments that have been directed at folks such as Willie Nelson and Paul McCartney recently; folks that state that musicians shouldn’t speak their mind, that they’re gonna burn their CD’s, etc. Of course it’s the height of hypocrisy for a faceless person to tell someone that they have no right to say something, and it’s downright asinine to destroy something that someone bought, but hey, I guess they feel the need to react when someone doesn’t agree with their views.
LTW: British artist Dan Edwards recently recreated Carl Andre’s famous bricks sculpture using hollow cardboard bricks inspired initially by the feeling that mass protest is useless (represented thus by an object that does not fulfil its purpose). As a band that originally came up in the counter culture movement of the 60s, is this something you agree with? Do you think that we are listened to or ignored more by those in power?
DS: I can only speak as someone who was born in 1975 and has essentially worshipped 60s music my entire life. The messages of protest and progressive politics found in the music I love definitely shaped my political viewpoints. In simple terms, soul music taught me of racial equality. Rock and folk music taught me to question authority. So, no, I don’t feel that protest is useless at all. I’m actually offended by that notion, and we can only progress if we speak up about our own beliefs, and call those out there are choosing the wrong side of history.
TA: It’s very important to keep trying, and we have seen success in the past with people making changes. If you give up and give in, they win.
AP: As a natural cynic, I might smile at such artistic gestures, but the current partisan climate seems to suggest that any concept of compromise has been abandoned by most folks. To paraphrase the poet Shelley, any artist might be an “unacknowledged legislator of the world.” If a vintage rock ’n’ roll act like the Watchband can get their message through, that would be great. As Tim says, we can but try.
DA: I appreciate artists who express their vision of the world in unique and controversial ways. This trait is peculiar to our species except maybe for whales who sing and crows who decorate their nests with found human objects. I think mass protest is still viable and may be necessary to save this republic in the very-near future. The politics of today, the mass disinformation campaigns, the manufactured hatred of one another in this country for what we believe in or where we go to church is not sustainable. All great nations fall, and for America I think I occasionally hear the fat lady singing off in the distance when the latest tweet slithers out of the White House.
The counter culture of the 60’s was powered by these factors: the largest and richest young generation the world had ever seen, the invention of birth control-sex felt good and you could roll in it without worrying about getting pregnant, all in the hands of 16-17 year olds! Cheap and available pot, mushrooms and acid, the explosion of popular music that every kid in that generation listened to all at the same time together , the reality of civil rights, and a war we all knew was wrong, accomplishing nothing except returning our high school buddies home in body bags. We marched and eventually, Washington listened.
Today, it appears our Congress, Supreme Court and the White House are in a lose/win situation. In opinion polls, a solid majority of Americans want very specific things to change: Universal health care like the rest of the free world enjoys, reduced costs for higher education, legislation to curb gun violence among the lunatic fringe, and the right to just be who you are in any way, shape or form. All those desires are ignored in favour of the marching orders of lobbyists, corporations, wealthy billionaires, religious organization, foreign powers, and politicians who have their own personal agendas. And the discourse through the web? Listen closely to the lyrics in “This Is My Voice”. I wanted this song out before the mid-term elections, (however) audio production slowed it down but it still resonates.
LTW: Moving on to the sound of the album, there’s a definite more blues-orientated sound on some of the tracks, such as Trouble Everyday, while other songs still retain a more psych feel, and Secret Rendezvous is a great fuzzed out stomper. What were you listening to when you we writing and recording the album?
DA: I heard Trouble Everyday one slushy freezing snowy January evening in Boston on WMBR our local college radio station on my way home from work. I flashed back to seeing Frank and the Mothers perform it and I knew it was written for us. “I’m about to get sick from watching my TV, checking on the news until my eyeballs fail to see, I mean to say that everyday is just another mess, and when it’s gonna stop my friend is anybody’s guess.” Secret Rendezvous started with a riff I stumbled on one evening and I wrote and recorded the song in 30 minutes! Lyrics came immediately after that. When songwriting, I’m pretty focused on that particular song but in-between times I might listen to Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Kathleen Edwards (brilliant songstress!) and then, just for laughs, I’ll listen to ALL the Rolling Stone hot hit picks for that month, read the stratospheric dazzling comments about the significance of this new gold paved album and shake my head mumbling “What The Fuck” and go back to my own recording and writing.
TA: The group has always had a blues base going back to the 60s, and our influence from American and British blues acts.
DS: The Stones and Yardbirds being the obvious one. Not a surprise to me, as the pulse and drone of electric blues is the direct antecedent to psychedelic music. The two go hand in hand from my perspective.
AP: The blues, filtered through the British Invasion, was always at the heart of Watchband music back in the day, so it’s absolutely natural to still reference it here. David guided the musical tenor of much of the material, and he stays up to date on a lot of current alternative rock, so that has to be an influence. The rest of us just do our best to channel it through the classic Watchband filters.
TA: We have been developing this album over a period of a few years, so a lot of it is just a response to how we feel about what’s been going on.
LTW: You’re well known for reinterpreting and covering other artists on your records, thinking about Chuck Berry, The Kinks, Dylan, Buffalo Springfield. On the new album you rework Dylan’s Desolation Row, The Seeds’ Can’t Seem To Make You Mine, and Music Machine’s Talk Talk. What do you look for when deciding what songs to cover?
TA: The Can’t Seem To Make You Mine cover came about because we were asked to contribute to a Sky Saxon tribute record. Alec, in his work as a reissue producer, was connected with the Seeds keyboardist Daryl Hooper, and so we asked him to come in and play with us on it. The tribute album ultimately didn’t happen, but we decided that we liked the song and wanted to include it in this album. The other covers are songs that we enjoy, and felt would be a good fit for our performances and direction.
DA: I brought in Desolation Row and Can’t Seem To Make You Mine. Tim brought in Talk Talk. I liked those two songs and always wanted to cover them. During the session, I asked Alec if he knew Daryl and where we might contact him to sit in with us. One London second later we were taking to him, he came into the studio and recorded with us. We have a killer version of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On in the can too. Most folks may think I was heavily influenced by the Stones – OK, some – but the Yardbirds, Kinks, and Bob Dylan really spoke to me with strong voices. On the next album, I’d like to cover See My Friend by the Kinks. All of these artist are brilliant songwriters. I really admire that in people.
When members bring in songs to be considered, we make demo recordings of them to demonstrate what each writer was thinking. Later, we may add them to our stage set. When we all agree on where we’re going with a particular song , we go into the studio and that’s where magic begins. Derek adds a part, Tim is behind the boards adding his tracks later, I’m cutting a quick vocal track for the band to follow, Gary is working out the drum patterns, percussion parts, and Alec cements it all together with the bass. Tim and I go back, add more tracks rough mix. The band listens to it, makes comments, things get adjusted etc. It is a wonderfully creative process where you learn diplomacy very quickly. “Diplomacy” – the art of letting other people have it your way.
LTW: The artwork of the new album has a definite feel of No Way Out in the colouring and design. Was that intentional?
DA: Yes – good catch. Looking at No Way Out and Inner Mystique we liked the idea of a head shot in the middle with the art radiating out around it. This album is the next reiteration of who we are.
DS: David designed it, and when he showed us mock ups, I voted strong for the one that made the final cut, as it has an undeniable aesthetic of continuity for The Chocolate Watchband.
LTW: When you started out the British Invasion groups were clearly a big influence on you and other groups that came out of the same scene. How do consider the scene and style has evolved? Are there any bands nowadays that you think are truly carrying the torch?
DS: That scene and sound was an absolute renaissance, and the British sounds, whether made in the UK or elsewhere under its influence created the greatest rock n roll in the history of the genre, in my opinion. That influence has resonated ever since, and there have always been great bands that take cues from this golden age and adapt it in to the now. A few current favourites that carry on in this tradition are Triptides, and The Creation Factory.
TA: There are some groups that are still carrying on the idea of real music. There’s so much computerized music in today’s scene that it’s hard to find something that’s genuine. There are some groups like Foo Fighters Arcade Fire and others that are focused on real playing.
AP: Whenever I feel that classic rama-lama rock’n’roll style is going the way of classical and jazz, becoming a niche genre, there is always a young band popping up who can happily disavow me of that notion. Recently, the Strypes were like that, also check out a great French group called Les Grys Grys.
DA: Author Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock made pretty clear that in the future, societies will be overwhelmed by choices in everything around them – mass-produced food, cars ,partners, toys, games, religious beliefs, entertainment, and popular music. Like Doritos, crunch away, we’ll make more. (It) has become the reality. Who do I listen to? Besides the already mentioned artists, my song lists are fluid and ever changing. My current listening list: Samantha Fish. I love me some more of that 4-string cigar box slide guitar! Memory House, Porcelain Raft, Howlin’ Wolf, David Bowie’s Blackstar, Cemeteries, Collective Soul, Great Northern, Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton, The Jezebels, The Ramones, Winterpills, Active Child, Vaults, James – Getting Away With It All is brilliant. Imogen Heap, Imogen Heap, Imogen Heap, Royksopp, Bright Eyes, Robert Plant, Los Lobos, Annie Lennox, Queen!
In regards to the British band also named the Chocolate Watchband that leaped out of the weeds a few months after we formed, bummer of a name to pick guys, although we thought when Thee Sixpence heard the name the “chocolate watchband” and changed their name to “Strawberry Alarmclock”, it was a nice compliment!
LTW: You’re about to head out to play some shows in support of the album. How do feel about stepping back up on stage these days? What kind of faces do you see looking back at you?
DS: I currently play in several bands and have been doing so since I was a kid; there is nothing that compares to the excitement of playing a Watchband show. The audience spans the age from 4th generation fans in the millennial age bracket, all the way up to folks who were there in ’67. There’s always a look of excitement, sometimes with surprise. I think a lot of fans are surprised by how much energy the band has, and how, when we play the old material, it has the right sound and intense velocity.
DA: What a daunting challenge to do new songs onstage! Everybody loves hearing the old stuff. I do too and if the new stuff isn’t that good, what’s the point? The classic stuff was written and sung before I was 20. It was me back then and it’s nice to do the nostalgia trip back in time and sing it like I did at that point in life. The new stuff comes from I do not know where but it is here and I love singing it. Each song is like watching something you planted grow. And its us now, all our past experiences, gains in musical capabilities, growth as musicians, its all right here. I believe a band has one chance to introduce a new song to the audience, and if its a good song, they’ll buy it, and listen to it, and find their own meaning to it. That’s just the attraction of music to me!
TA: We see this more as a continuation of what we’ve been doing for the last 19 years, and we really enjoy playing and performing. One thing that is exciting is that there are a lot of younger fans coming to see us that are discovering what we’re doing and connecting with it.
AP: A Watchband show is always exciting. Thanks to David, who guides the rest of us through the dynamics of the set and keeps the tension and the vibes strong, you can sense that in the glow of enthusiasm that is returned by the crowd: both the seasoned aficionados and kids that have discovered Watchband music for the first time.
LTW: And of course, we’re looking forward to having you come over and play some European shows. What plans have you got?
DS: We’re working on getting over there in the spring of 2019.
TA: We recently signed with Dirty Water Records, London and they have plans to have a tour Europe this next year.
AP: And it’s always nice to return home to England and show off to my friends as a Chocolate Watchband-man!
DA: We love Europe! Sadly, garage music is dying a slow death here in America. Again, like a monster supermarket, there are too many choices in music today that are spread over too many genres. 17 for Heavy Metal alone? Really? Everything today is a throw-away streaming single, like eating out of a bag of M&M’s. Nothing emotionally nutritious about it and it all tastes the same.
Friends tell me San Francisco is closing up to live music, musicians there are migrating down to LA. Boston and NYC still rock but Europe is where it is at for us! After playing in Rome, Purple Weekend in Spain where we were treated like kings! Paris where the club was stacked to the rafters with fans, selling out the Rocket Club in London thanks to Rob Bailey, and Festival Beat in Parma this summer, what else could a rockband ask for? Closing Festival Beat, imagine stepping out on to stage at 12:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning for a festival that started Thursday night and seeing thousands and thousands and thousands of smiling faces staring back at you, all singing along to the words to your songs. That’s what the Watchband was built for! This is what we were meant to do and nobody can ever take that away from us again!
LTW: And finally, to round off, can you sum up The Chocolate Watchband of 2018 and This Is My Voice in three words?
DS: True psychedelic experience
TA: Energized, enthusiastic, explosive!
DA: We’re Not Done
AP: Couldn’t have said it better.
The Chocolate Watchband will play San Francisco (Nov. 30), Portland (Dec. 1), and Seattle (Dec. 2)
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All words by Nathan Whittle. Find his Louder Than War archive here.
Band photo by Greg Gutbezahl