Sacrificing the dream
It’s early on a Tuesday evening, already dark outside and starting to get chilly. Inside the Zephyr Bar on Virginia Street, it’s warm and dusky, the twinkling Christmas lights illuminating the colorful art on the walls, the faces of the old hippies and laidback 30-somethings clustered around the bar. A dog snoozes on the floor. Members of Mama’s Trippin’ drift in one by one and order after-work drinks, regrouping before their regular weekly jam session.
While they say they don’t really hang out at the Zephyr that often, it’s hard to believe. This summer, guitarist Johnny Woytek purchased the bar, spiffed it up a little and now tries not to live there as he works to transform the already legendary venue into more of a destination for bigger out-of-town names.
And somehow, it’s the perfect backdrop for the band, the artsy, slack vibe complementing not only the members’ personalities but the band’s rich, layered sound. Like the band, the bar has gone through various incarnations over the years. It’s been a gay bar, a biker hangout, a punk favorite. Over the years, it has mellowed; these days, a veneer of something like maturity has settled over the place. Still, there are always those frenzied Saturday nights when the whiskey flows freely, and the women can’t seem to keep their shirts on.
Mama’s Trippin’ has been together since 1995, Woytek admits with bemused shock after thinking about it for a minute and counting on his fingers. Back then, he says, they were all about chasing the rock-star dream. They shipped out demo tapes, went on tour, played at some of San Francisco’s most famous hotspots. They got encouraging feedback from a couple of record labels in California.
Today, the band’s sound has matured considerably, and they’ve undergone a major attitude shift. They’re no longer trying to get famous, or even signed.
“We just don’t want it,” Woytek says. “We all wanted it at the beginning, but we’re just not into that anymore. Right now, we’re about paying off our loans, having fun and doing this crazy funky thing on the side.”
It’s been one of the hardest things the band has had to accept, but it’s a “mutual epiphany” arrived at after various bad experiences and stressful times that Woytek says were having an impact on what he feels is one of the band’s most appealing qualities: Its sense of fun.
“I think the moment of truth came a few years ago, when we were on tour with some local jackass,” Woytek says. “Everything went wrong. We played one rave club where we just crashed and burned. And I started to realize … do I really want to be putting myself through this?”
Brian Lee, another of the band’s original members, agrees.
“It’s actually fun again now,” Lee says.
That comes through loud and clear on some of their latest songs. The sound is hard to describe, combining elements from seemingly disparate groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Grateful Dead, Incubus and Tool. It’s an intricate sound, layering elaborate guitar-driven melodies and bass riffs with warmth and complexity.
“I think our sound has gotten much cleaner and more sophisticated,” says vocalist Brian Harlin.
The band’s lineup has also gone through some evolutions which have affected their overall sound. Consisting of Woytek, Lee and Harlin, the band recently added a new guitarist, Romney, a longtime fan and Zephyr regular who also plays in Dong Porkum Sorkum.
All the band’s songs are originals, written collaboratively and perfected over months of practice. Currently, the band is working on getting some of their latest material released on a self-published CD, which they recorded at a homemade recording studio in Woytek’s home.
They’re looking at releasing it sometime in the near future, but don’t hold your breath.
“We’ll get to it when we get to it," says Woytek.