Far away, so close
Beloved Sacramento rock band Far broke up more than a decade ago. Now they’re reunited with a new record—and old struggles.
Sacramento, CA 95814
Far’s lead singer Jonah Matranga is alone in England in a hotel room, pacing. He’s just read a nasty e-mail from Far guitarist Shaun Lopez, who’s half a world away in Los Angeles. Jonah fires back a sharp reply. They’re having another fight. An ugly one.
The duo has been writing songs for Far’s new album, the band’s first in a dozen years, but penning rock tunes sometimes comes a lot easier than simple conversation for Jonah and Shaun. Tensions have come to head. The two are upset, arguing like brothers, saying all those things you never mean but let out anyway. Shaun calls Jonah “an idiot.” Jonah calls Shaun an “asshole.” And a lot worse.
“How is this person who is so close to me saying these horrible things?” Jonah ponders afterward. He turns feelings into words, lyrics: “Why do we fight like this? It’s precious what we have. It’s dying.”
As any Sacramentan who gives a damn about rock music already knows, Jonah and Shaun’s band, Far, owned the local scene, along with Deftones and Cake, during the early 1990s. The group, a rock foursome including Sacto natives John Gutenberger on bass and drummer Chris Robyn, attracted faithful teenaged fans in numbers unmatched by any Sacto band even two decades since, kids seduced by strident rock riffs and thoughtful, melodic songwriting. Even Sony Music Entertainment fell under Far’s spell, inking the band to a record deal.
One could argue that Far is the most beloved Sacramento rock band ever.
But brothers punch hard. And, like Jonah’s vulnerable, sincere vocals and Shaun’s thunderous, incisive guitar, the two Far bandmates didn’t always hit it off, their passion for music not always outweighing frustrations with each other.
In 1998, Far broke up. The guys moved on, started other bands. Fans were shocked. But it was over. End of story.
Well, not so fast.
After a decade apart, Far surprisingly reunited. This month, they have a new album, the first in more than a decade, and the band plays Sacramento on Tuesday, May 18, for only the second time in a dozen years.
Sure, art is often the result of struggle and conflict. Jonah and Shaun know this. So will music prevail in the end and soothe Far’s soul? As Jonah says, can a good chorus or riff “make everything else go away”?
You’ve seen Almost Famous. Rock ’n’ roll can save the world, right?A Far is born
The San Francisco Bay tide glides over the shore, wiping away beachcombers’ footprints in the sand. A few sailboats dot the waves just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s sunny, clear, a horizon never-ending—which is odd, because it’s usually foggy, overcast and crummy on this side of the city.
Jonah’s parked his car overlooking the beach cove, which is quiet this Saturday morning in March. He’s playing songs from Far’s new album, At Night We Live, because neither he nor Shaun wants to give over tangible copies to the press. Or even friends. Leaks, illegal downloads, who knows—Jonah says “no one else” has a copy.
“I already feel that we’re on the borderline of being at an unseemly age to play really loud music,” warns Jonah, 40, before bumping the opening track, titled “Deafening”—and aptly so. The song kicks off with a muted scream. Then Shaun’s guitar rips it, a pit bull’s teeth gnawing flesh.
Jonah still looks in his 30s, what with his pierced ear, just-a-touch-of-grayed short hair and youthful enthusiasm, especially when discussing music. But he seems nervous about not getting any younger when it comes to rock. “I feel it’s so embarrassing when old guys get together to play rock ’n’ roll. I feel like I’m watching a wax museum.”
Jonah is the elder member of Far; in 1991, he moved to Sacramento after attending college in Southern California. And he was an outsider: Born into a Jewish family in Massachusetts, he describes himself as a “weirdo” who got into guitar in the sixth grade. During high school, he wrote folk songs, listened to Rickie Lee Jones and even joined a break-dancing troupe. And got wasted a lot.
“I pretty much did enough drugs between the ages of 12 and 17 for someone who does drugs their entire life,” Jonah says; he’s sober now and hasn’t gotten drunk or used since his teens.
Shaun, two years Jonah’s junior, was straightedge as well when he met Jonah. He grew up in a rural part of Elk Grove and got into rock through his older brother. His parents listened to Elvis, Barry White, Kenny Rogers—“smooth jams,” Shaun remembers. “I think that’s why I don’t really dig Elvis. I was scarred from hearing it so much. And I was bummed that my parents didn’t like the Beatles.”
Shaun picked up a guitar at 13, a moment he describes as weirdly transcendent. By 15, he’d already joined punk band Inner Strength, whose first show was at Berkeley’s renowned 924 Gilman—with Bad Religion and No Use for a Name, no less. Later, he gigged with punk legends Operation Ivy and his hero, Kevin Seconds, here in Sacto. “I remember when I finally found out Kevin Seconds lived in Sacramento. I was like, ‘We have to find him!’” Shaun jokes.
Shaun, John and Chris all took “guitar workshop” together at Elk Grove High School, which John says was basically an hour of learning Metallica riffs. When Inner Strength’s drummer Brent Spain quit—he joined Drop Acid with Seconds and future Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter—Shaun stopped playing punk and started jamming out hard-rock tunes with Chris on drums at his mom’s Elk Grove ranch. Shaun’s dad owned a trucking company; the two posed for glam photos in front of the big rigs. This was Far’s genesis.
Chris begged, but John wasn’t into playing bass for Far out the gate—“I was really just more interested in partying,” John says—so Malcolm O’Keefe, who still lives in Sacramento, popped the four-string from ’91 to ’94. But Far needed a singer; they looked “forever” until Malcolm introduced Shaun to Jonah.
“Well, he can definitely sing. But he’s not perfect,” Shaun remembers. Jonah had long, long, Eddie Vedder hair, “a granola hippie,” according to Shaun. “I’m sure he thought we were some weirdo metal band, too.”
It was a fit, but a strange one: Jonah, the expressive, combative English-major singer-songwriter who was into Prince; and Shaun, the clad-in-black, long-banged, Misfits T-shirt-wearing suburban teenager who was into Bad Brains. But rock ’n’ roll’s history book was written by odd couples, such as Lennon and McCartney—with more recent chapters by Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Axl and even Pavement’s Spiral Stairs and Stephen Malkmus. And on and on.
Maybe this Far thing would work?Legit, then quit
Far’s John Gutenberger, who hasn’t stepped a foot on a golf course in more than a year, launches a white ball down the middle of the second-hole fairway at Sacramento’s William Land Park Golf Course. He plays bass right-handed, but golfs lefty, like Phil Mickelson. He cleans the ball after each hole and meticulously lines up putts. A faded Rancho Murieta member tag dangles from his golf bag. He’s serious, complete with an impressively mechanical swing. Who knew?
By the sixth hole, the truth emerges: He and bandmate Chris played together on Elk Grove High School’s golf team. “I did it to get out of P.E.,” reveals the tall, lanky, bearded bassist, cracking a wry smile. Junior year, Chris got kicked off for not cutting his long hair. This made John quit.
Besides, they had another hobby: rock.
According to Jonah, Far’s first gig is “a matter of some dispute.” Chris puts his money on the Guild Coffeehouse, on 35th Street in Oak Park, with Drop Acid and Dennis Yudt’s band Goon. Show No. 2 was a punk gig at the Davis Teen Center, where Jonah showed up in ass-hugging red shorts. “Shaun was so horrified,” Jonah says.
Show three was the charm: “$3 Thursdays” at the Cattle Club, the now-legendary all-ages joint on Folsom Boulevard, which was booked by Jerry Perry and Brian McKenna—two local promoters who still do shows. Bands had to pre-sell tickets to play; Chris hawked close to 100 at Elk Grove High. Kids were hooked.
Between 1992 and ’97, Far would earn upward of $5,000 at Cattle Club shows, according to Jonah, which funded the band’s jaunts to Los Angeles and Seattle and Phoenix.
After two self-released albums, Immortal/Epic, a division of Sony, inked the band in ’94; at the time, Chris and John were just months out of high school. “Jonah had this intense vulnerability,” Perry remembers. “They were young, but they were the most influential band in Sacramento.”
Far’s style was unusual, at the vanguard of a new hard-rock meets indie meets “emo” sound. At shows, Shaun and Jonah would leap from the stage and onto sweaty teenagers, sometimes 700 in number at the 350-capacity Cattle Club. Fans sang along to even the lesser-known songs, impassioned, stirred by Jonah’s words. Shaun would crunch power chords, like on Far’s more popular song “In the Aisle, Yelling,” and Jonah would sing intimate lyrics—“Blessed be / Messed up me / Should I feel different? / Was I crying to get my face wet?”—which humanized Far’s forceful guitar rock. If you saw them live, it was unequivocally contagious.
Tons of bands cite Far as an influence: the kinda obvious, such as Jimmy Eat World, and the less so, like Blink 182.
But for every fan who fell in love with Far’s sound, there were thousands who didn’t. On a nationwide tour opening for Sepultura, Far was heckled, crowds calling them “faggots.” And Sony, who never really understood Far, either, more or less abandoned the band on the heels of its last release, Water & Solutions, which sold 35,000, a paltry sum in the label’s eyes.
“We actually were stoked that we’d sold more albums than ever before,” says John, who remembers constructing fake gold records out of Mason jar lids with Jonah. They sent a few to Sony.
All the while, Jonah was drifting from the band. He had a daughter. His marriage was failing. And musically, he wanted to make different sounds, pop songs, his own solo stuff. “I was a wreck. I was getting a divorce. And we were all—I was tired,” he remembers.
Around the time when Water & Solutions, Far’s seminal, awesome 1998 album, dropped, the band was offered a tour with Incubus and System of a Down—sold-out shows, guaranteed money, 2,000 screaming bodies each night. But Jonah flat out turned it down. Then, right before leaving to crisscross the nation on a headlining tour, Jonah told the rest of the guys that he was kicking around the idea of taking a break.
“I think we were all sort of speechless,” Shaun reflects. “I just think there was a point—and I’m sure he knows it, and I hope he does—where he just got carried away. I just think he thought he was Jonah without Far. Just the classic singer thing. Like he was David Lee Roth.”
Jonah’s take is that the band never spoke openly and honestly like they do now. “Why would we talk about it?” he asks, sarcastically. “That would’ve been too easy.”
And so, at a gig in Washington, D.C., Far hit the wall.
“If you say anything like that again, seriously, it’s over.”
The guys were onstage, mid-set, in front of a half-full room. One of those tough, underattended shows that Jonah and Shaun both say inspires—a challenge. But Shaun, ever the perfectionist, wasn’t stoked on John’s bass tone—and he let John know it. John told him to shut it. “Seriously.” Shaun didn’t.
“And I just left. Just walked off the stage,” recalls John, 12 years later, sitting at a bar in Midtown, hand on his chin, sipping a beer, the exact same thing he did that night in D.C. right after leaving Far.
“Does anybody out there know how to play bass?” Jonah announced, in a classic hey-what-the-hell-just-happened way. A friend sat in for a couple songs, but eventually John relented and finished the set. And the tour.
“The thing is, everybody wanted out,” John reflects. “Jonah was pissing off Shaun. Chris didn’t want to be in the same room as Jonah.” The rock was phenomenal, but the struggle too much. No farewell Sacramento show. Far was over.Ten-year reunion
Chris, John, Jonah and Shaun fled to different corners of California. Jonah moved to San Francisco and focused on his flourishing solo career. Shaun eventually took up residence in Los Angeles, where he established a recording studio. Chris blazed through UC Davis and McGeorge School of Law before starting up practice in San Diego. Only John remained in Sacramento, playing with various bands, including Two Sheds, with his new wife, Caitlin, and working full-time for an audio company.
Some guys kept in touch. Chris drummed with John in Milwaukee; after moving, he did session work for Shaun. John occasionally caught Shaun’s band, the Revolution Smile—who toured the world with Marilyn Manson and even played Jimmy Kimmel Live—when they played Sacto. Jonah only really saw John, whose house he’d crash at when passing through.
Things changed in spring 2008. Jonah had just played a gig at Old Ironsides, a Jerry Perry Alive & Kicking reunion. He called Shaun after. “It would have been so cool to have Far there.
“Maybe we should do some shows?”
“I was excited about it,” Shaun says. “But I wasn’t excited about the way he wanted to do it at first, because Jonah’s way of doing things and my way are usually totally opposite.”
John was in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest, when he first heard. Chris had called and said Jonah was coming over. “I thought you fucking hated Jonah?” John asked. John was “completely skeptical”—but later charmed by the idea of “playing loud” again.
Jonah met with Chris and looked him in the eyes. It was the first time seeing each other in a decade. “He and I never fought,” Jonah explains, “but it was sad the way the band ended. … We just really quickly cleared up some shit. And it was really good for me to hear it.
“But there were a lot of hurt feelings.”
There wasn’t a proverbial hell-freezes-over moment. The four guys, all flirting with middle age, just started jamming again, clandestinely, at Shaun’s Burbank studio. No pressure. Keep it fun.
“Honestly, I swear to God, it didn’t feel like any time had passed,” John remembers of those first moments, playing the opening bars of “Seasick,” an uptempo rocker off Far’s third album that, incidentally, the band still has yet to master. “It wasn’t comfortable, but it felt the way things always felt.”
Jonah’s emotions were revelatory. “I had this really sad feeling that I let the band down,” he says. “It was a great moment of reconciliation, where we got to, more than anything, forgive ourselves for our perceived wrongs.”
So now what?
How about something wild, even bizarre. Something that would catapult Far’s musical future into a panorama infinite. Something the guys never saw coming.Pony ride
Is Ginuwine the reason Far is still a band?
Already, the reunion idea was causing stress. Nobody could agree. Shaun wanted to play one big extravaganza show—but in Los Angeles, not Sacramento. Jonah wanted just show up, unrehearsed, and just do it. And Chris wanted to make a new album.
John felt it was all too much too soon. “I didn’t want to go out and have all these expectations. I wanted a way to diffuse that, make it lighter,” he says. So, when Jonah decided to book a few Far shows in Southern California, he ended up doing so under a fake band name, Hot Little Pony.
A website went up—it’s still there, www.myspace.com/hotlittlepony—and everyone in the band used monikers: Baby Countdown, Love Petal, Lucky the Stallion, Pretty Beat. The only thing missing was actual music; “We should have something that’s ours that we made,” Jonah remembers saying.
Ginuwine’s memorable, saucy 1996 single “Pony”—you know, the R&B sex romp: “If you’re horny, let’s do it / Ride it, my pony”—was a song Far played before going onstage. After an inspired lunch, Shaun and Jonah tracked vocals and made a Hot Little Pony cover of “Pony”—in less than four hours, according to the band’s tour manager Steve Hall. Jonah sent out fake press releases to Filter magazine. Sacramento’s master of mastering, Eric Broyhill, put the final touches on it. Local Eddie Meehan sent “Pony” to radio stations across California.
In November, Far had a few dates in the United Kingdom and crossed the pond—playing sold-out shows in 1,500-seater London arenas, to their shock. They had a great time. “When we got back from the U.K., I thought the band was done for good. And I was totally content with that. ‘OK, that was cool. See you later!’” Chris remembers.
But Christmas 2008 came early.
Because when they returned, “Pony” became a giant hit on the radio—the band’s only radio single ever. It exploded, first on 91X, San Diego’s modern-rock station, then Sacramento’s KWOD 106.5 FM—rest in peace—and San Francisco’s Live 105. By December 2008, it was a No. 1 requested song—including on KROQ in Los Angeles, the most popular rock ’n’ roll frequency in the nation. Torrent and peer-to-peer sites saw downloads at a rate of 20,000 per week. More than 50,000 iTunes users purchased “Pony.” Teenagers blew up Far’s MySpace with more than 4.5 million plays. Major labels clamored to sign the band all over again. All because of a joke song.
Shaun was floored. “I’ve never thought I would get excited about hearing my song on the radio, but, like, man, when you live in L.A. and KROQ is the biggest station in the country, and just getting in the car every day and just hearing something that you made, it’s kind of one of those moments.” The guys would take cell-phone grabs of their cars’ digital radios whenever “Pony” was aired. It was crazy. Crazy enough to bring back all the past’s demons.
Within months, Shaun and Jonah were at it, working on the fifth Far album, writing songs—and those angry e-mails.Dear enemy
A cafe down the street from Jonah’s S.F. apartment, in a sleepy Outer Richmond neighborhood miles away from downtown’s hubbub, is the only place to get coffee this Saturday morning. Jonah takes tea. He lives here because it’s a quick seven blocks from his ex-wife, which is ideal for Hannah, his 15-year-old daughter. Jonah reminds himself that he has to take her to soccer practice later. Life is full: The next day, he sings in the choir at Glide, a counterculture Methodist church that’s been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In a month, he’ll be back on the road playing solo shows.
This week, Far leaves for 11 shows in 12 days, beginning in Sacto and then zigzagging the West Coast, the guys’ longest excursion since the one that broke it all. Two weeks in a cramped tour bus—a 15-seater, with amenities like Wi-Fi and a flat-screen TV—a lot nicer than Far’s first tour ride, a cramped, metallic-pea-green Chevy 350 maintenance van used to tar roads in Oakland.
“I can’t imagine the scenario in which I get back in the van for an extended period of time,” Jonah says of his touring prospects. He doesn’t work a “real job”—John is the only member of Far who has an actual boss—and says he’s been fortunate to make a living from music.
But Jonah would rather stay in San Francisco, with his daughter, working on non-Far things: a children’s book; a website; fiddling with a sequel to one his solo songs, called “14 to 41,” the latter being the age he’ll turn this summer. And doing things with his church (“It’s the coolest thing about San Francisco and the coolest church you’ve ever been to”).
“I’m at this interesting point for myself where I’m feeling more ideas that aren’t musical going into my head,” he shares.
But Shaun and Jonah agree that touring to promote the new record is the “right thing to do.” There were really never any blowouts about writing or recording At Night We Live.
“Of course, there are arguments about everything else in the world,” Jonah says.
“Shaun and I got in some big fucking fights that weren’t about anything in particular, but they were just us actually getting down to a lot of the stuff that, even when the band was together before, we never talked about,” Jonah explains. “It was not pretty. We’d have these e-mail threads that were legendary battles, then phone calls where he’d quit the band.
“In the past, the band was our therapist and our gang and our profession and our mistress. It was everything for us.”
In England, after a particularly nasty blowout that left Jonah pacing his hotel room, he wrote a song about Shaun, who’d sent him a guitar riff, heavy, like Pantera. Jonah calls it a “rich, rhinoceros feel.” It was daunting; Shaun never thought Jonah would actually sing over it—is that partly why he sent it in the first place?
Whispering into his voice recorder, Jonah wrote the song as a letter: “Dear enemy / When we fight like this / we’d both be pretty bloodied up if our words were fists / and if our words were guns / we’d be dead and gone / Why do we fight like this / dear enemy.” It’s At Night We Live’s total ripper, unrelenting, with an epic chorus, Jonah wailing “Let’s not let it go,” a desperate plea to a friend.
“In a sense, that’s what makes Far, and that’s why people dig Far. Because me and him, we just don’t fit together. But somehow, when we come together and make music, it’s something cool,” Shaun says.
He also calls it “dysfunctional,” especially on tour, where Jonah hides in hotel rooms or the back of the van, face in his laptop, and Shaun sits shotgun and plays tour deejay. Far away, so close. He likens life on the road with Jonah as “reporting for duty.”
“I’m not gonna lie. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. We don’t really like each other that much,” Shaun sums up. “But the one thing we love is this band, and this music. And that makes it all worth it.
“Most of the arguments between myself and Jonah are all over e-mail. Someday they’ll all be published; it’ll be a tell-all book.”Dreams of Chi
Jonah woke in the middle of the night.
Shaun was up late, too. He’d been working on client assignments all day at his studio, but when 5 o’clock came, he put work aside and focused on Far’s new album: Relax on the couch, tool with the guitar, record ideas. Hours were minutes, but eventually fresh air beckoned. When Shaun finally went outside, he discovered that night had passed and the next day’s light was already on the rise.
Shaun titled the song he’d been working on “At Night We Live.”
Jonah’s lyrics to the song came in a dream. He’d crossed the Bay Bridge earlier that year to visit Chi Cheng, the Deftones bassist, who’s been in a coma since surviving a car crash in November 2008. “He had his normal clothes on and his eyes were open,” Jonah remembers, talking about his friend, while looking out over the ocean as it feeds into the San Francisco Bay. “And I’d had this dream that Chi and I were just hanging out, and I wrote down the words: ‘I dreamt that you were alive / I dreamt of your eyes / they weren’t just open / they were engaged.’”
The end result is a simple, heartfelt and—honestly—tearful rock ballad about a close friend who they’d known for two decades.
Chi, whose name means “life flow” and who is also a poet, represents art and music in all its gratitude and possibility. Even when Jonah and Shaun are at each other’s throats—whether it’s over Jonah’s idea to boycott an upcoming Arizona show, which Shaun calls “fucking stupid,” or to call “Pony” a “Far song” or whatever—it’s Chi’s chi, his awesome humility and incredible humor, that can shine light on darkness.
“There’s so much love, but at the same time there’s so much hate,” Shaun says of Far, chatting again from inside his L.A. studio, which—after a few hours of conversation—you realize is his true home, instead of the actual house mere feet away. Music is all that matters for Shaun, who, while demanding, is also hilarious and thoughtful. Even late at night, sitting on the couch with his wife, Amy, a successful L.A. makeup artist, they watch stuff like the new documentary on Blur: Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn, another guitarist and another singer who hate each other.
Shaun concedes that he thinks Far will end, again, the struggle too much. But then again, even he doesn’t know for sure.
Band of brothers
Who’s the genius that came up with the idea to throw huge rock festivals in parking lots?
It’s a roaster of a Sunday in Anaheim, the Southern California city that Disneyland calls home, for day two of Bamboozle California, a popular alternative-rock festival that got its start in New Jersey. This West Coast incarnation goes off at Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s stadium (yes, that’s the team’s actual name) atop black asphalt. Temperature: eggs over hard. Some 30 bands, all for a cool $82. Bottled water: $5.25. Parking: $20. Rumor has it two of three Jonas Brothers are in attendance.
The foremost Bamboozle demographic is 18-year-old girls squeezed into skinny jeans sporting “Free Weezy” T-shirts, a reference to rapper Lil Wayne, who’s doing a year in a New York City jail for criminal possession of a .40 caliber pistol. So much for Amnesty International.
It’s late in the day. On the main stage, which faces the ballpark entrance, former Michael Jackson guitarist Orianthi Panagaris rips the solo from King of Pop’s “Give Into Me.” Shaun, who’s enjoying a generous Red Bull-cocktail pour in the taurine-infused libation’s VIP lounge, posts on Twitter: “I can’t shred like that. However, I do have better hair.”
John calls Bamboozle “strange,” but it’s part of the music culture that the older, wiser Far suddenly finds itself part of. These are what the band calls “Pony kids,” those illegal downloaders who torrented and shared Far’s hit song a million times over. The ones who’ll hopefully not illegally download At Night We Live. Far’s fate is somewhat in their hands. The future of rock ’n’ roll is, too, in a sense.
Near a smaller stage, away from the epidemic of T-shirt vendors and shrill metal guitars, a few dozen loyal 30-something Far fans appear out of place. Behind the stage and a giant tree, Chris, John, Jonah and Shaun stand huddled in a circle, arms interlinked. Jonah gestures to John’s wife, Caitlin, and she joins the group hug. Then someone grabs longstanding roadie and guitar tech Ray Blanco to get in on the love. Tour manager Steve Hall is across a gravel field, seated behind the sound board, Mickey Mouse ears resting atop his scraggly crimson locks. It’s the magic hour, a few ticks past 6 o’ clock, and the setting sun’s persimmon and dandelion rays shoot through the branches onto the stage.
Jonah whispers to the band, still embracing. Then, one by one, the guys take the stage. Far’s playing a show again. Chris, John, Jonah and Shaun are in front of a crowd. This is where they belong.