Trippin’ with Ganglians
Our writer goes on tour with the most popular Sacramento band you’ve never heard of
Ganglians and I are trapped in a broken-down rental car at the confluence of Los Angeles’ two busiest freeways. The engine died in the fast lane, then the lemon puttered to a panic-inducing halt between the “Five” and “Four-oh-five,” as they say. Now, endless lanes of traffic shoot past mere feet to the left. More cars accelerate by to the right.
We’re sitting ducks.
The four Ganglians and I are silent as the umpteenth big-rig roars at us, banks left, shoots past and shakes the hell out of the car.
Envision the next day’s headlines:
“Truck crushes touring Sacramento band”
“Thanksgiving freeway nightmare hospitalizes local musicians”
“Sac’s next Led Zeppelin, wannabe Cameron Crowe killed in L.A. pileup”
At least the band is used to media attention: Ganglians began nearly three years ago as awkward Midtown newbies but swiftly grew into the most popular Sacramento band you’ve never heard of. Vice magazine dishes them kudos. Pitchfork stamps their approval. In the coming months, the band will sign a major record deal, tour Europe, and gig with the likes of Wilco, Pavement and the Pixies.
But first, we must survive this San Diego road-trip nightmare.
Fortunately, Ganglians have seen almost all of it before: emergency-room visits, border-patrol horror stories, TMZ-certified bar fights, failed radiators. From short West Coast jaunts to a recent behemoth 27-date North American tour opening for Wavves, this band’s uncommonly tested, considering its musicians are all under age 25.
Singer Ryan Grubbs said the band’s always kind of been the odd band out. The guys are serious about music, but don’t implore for press, success, getting signed or making cash like so many groups. Even in Midtown’s underground music scene, their peers played strange ambient noise rock and dissonant post-punk when Ganglians explored cartoony, off-tempo, psychedelic indie rock with beautiful, Beach Boys-inspired pop flourishes.
“One of the most important things about their group, which is a crucial element of any great band, is that their individual personalities come through strong in their playing,” says Sacramento artist and Wavves drummer Zach Hill, who has toured with Ganglians. He says you don’t truly become “a real band” until you do time on the road.
“I hesitate to use the words ‘a real band,’” he qualifies. “But what I’m trying to say is that there are certain problems that can arise from being on tour, and how you go about overcoming those problems, without having collapses or breakdowns, says a lot about who you are as a band—and says a lot about your punk-rock spirit.”
It took a few weeks, but I eventually persuaded Ganglians to bring me along on a three-day Thanksgiving weekend tour in San Diego. Hill was right: Certain problems can arise.
Here’s a road map.Call shotgun, have someone else drive
It’s dawn, and Ganglians’ drummer Alex Sowles looks like he just emerged from a Turkey coma. Which is true, sort of.
“I ate a ton of ‘celebration roast,’ then passed out,” he says of the night before, only five hours earlier, while taking a morning drag the day after Thanksgiving. I probably look dead tired, too.
The plan is to meet at Sowles’ pad, where Ganglians currently practice, at 5 a.m. Friday morning. Then it’s a 505-mile, eight-hour trek to play two San Diego shows. Mini-tour. Road trip.
Soon, guitarist Kyle Hoover gets dropped off. Clean-shaven and looking surprisingly alert, Hoover allows that departing as planned is unlikely.
Bassist Adrian Comenzind arrives next. He rolls in from his mom’s Citrus Heights home wearing a wool-knit sweater; he neglected to do laundry before leaving. The beginnings of a mullet form at the back of his curly mop.
Comenzind and Hoover cram a bass, two guitars, a keyboard and stand, two amplifiers, boxes of CDs and vinyl records, backpacks and a pile of T-shirts into the Chevy Impala’s trunk. The bass’ oblong case won’t fit, though, and while Comenzind seems bummed, he at the same time seems resigned, or at least accustomed, to the fact that he won’t be using his own gear in San Diego. Sowles leaves his kit in Sacto and will borrow one.
Singer Grubbs is at his girlfriend’s nearby apartment; we pick him up and he’s a sprightly shock of crack-of-dawn vigor in skinny jeans, jacket and earthy cashmere-wool-blend sweater. He’s tall, maybe 6 feet 3 inches, and gangly, too, but never awkward.
Ganglians’ goal is to arrive in downtown San Diego by 2 p.m. for a sound check at Art Fag Fest. I’ll explain the title later, but basically it’s a seven-band lineup featuring popular No Age as headliners. Ganglians will earn $450 for the weekend.
Hoover calls shotgun; Sowles and Grubbs window. Comenzind and I are the only ones with valid driver’s licenses; he sleeps, I start at the wheel. We’re on the road by 5:36 a.m. Most of the band’s snoring by Walnut Grove.Bring an iPod
We stop outside Los Banos after a couple hours. Sowles gets coffee and enjoys a cigarette; Comenzind tries one of my crumb mini-donuts, but its artificiality repulses him; Grubbs, of all things, buys a Van Holten’s sour pickle, soaking in its own juices. He gnaws off a bite but is disappointed; Hoover takes a nibble, too, but is equally let down.
Grubbs brought a few CDs, but everyone else forgot to bring music or iPods.
There’s an excellent album in the trunk, Monster Head Room, but I don’t think the band’s going to want to bump that jam. This is because this past March, Ganglians released Monster Head Room; it was the band’s first full-length release, on Chad Stockdale’s Weird Forest label. During the same month, they also put out a 12-inch EP on Brooklyn’s Woodsist label. Monster sold out its initial pressings, and both earned unexpected raves.
Pitchfork, Generation Y’s de facto Rolling Stone, gave Monster 8.1 out of 10, admiring the band’s daring originality, writing that “while Grizzly Bear manicure and cloister their psych folk in the parlor, Ganglians slather and cake them in mud.” This was a tipping point.
Recently, venerable indie-music blog Gorilla vs. Bear cited Monster as one of 2009’s top 25 albums. I tell Hoover this, and he doesn’t really say anything, only shrugs.
Their critical success is sort of unique to Sac bands. Cake and Deftones were never really darlings. New big local bands like MC Rut and Dance Gavin Dance sell records, tour widely, but too haven’t seen Ganglians’ reviews. Only Chk Chk Chk has broken through in a similar vein—but after the band moved to New York.
Once ’Fork gave Ganglians the green light, all kinds of press bandwagoned and reviewed the band, slapping praises, and pigeonholes, of varying stripe: “beardo” rock, “scattershot pop,” “tape-hiss bong” tunes, “mushroom-fueled campfire boogie,” “stoner headphone” tunes, “art punk,” “Kesey-infused MC5 jams,” “mescaline ballads,” “trashed pop.”
Grubbs does concede that the band structured the 11-song release after the phases you go through during an acid trip—“euphoric and woozy,” he says, “including a freakout where you are questioning everything”—but reducing Monster to pharmacopeial platitudes is a bit one-dimensional. When I hear the album, I think Beach Boys’ beaming harmonies coupled with early Neil Young’s haunted balladeering and Pavement’s zany and unexpected Wowee Zowee.
Local blogger Heckasac, who sees a few shows each week and was likely the first person in Sacramento to acknowledge Ganglians in written word years ago, reflects: “[The band] was so quirky and off and weirdly tempo-ed, yet I loved them. So many bands sound like other bands, and while they obviously have influences, they were the rare band that had a unique sound right away.”
Producer Andy Morin, now working out of his studio off 19th Street, remembers recording Monster here in Midtown. At the time, he was Grubbs’ roommate; they had two other housemates, who’d left for 10 days in Portland, Ore., so the band brought over sleeping bags, turned the pad into a studio and put down Monster in its entirety.
Previously, Ganglians had recorded songs with local musician Jesse Phillips, of Ellie Fortune—clandestinely after hours inside Tower Theatre, no less. But this was Morin and the band’s first formal album.
Grubbs and Sowles’ L Street home is all over Monster: The house cat, in heat, can be heard pouncing around. Morin set up microphones in closets and in the bathroom, and the Craftsman bungalow’s acoustics lent itself to Grubbs and Comenzind’s rich vocal layering, à la Brian Wilson.
The record earned Ganglians major indie-label interest: JagJaguwar, 4AD, Captured Tracks, Woodsist, Fat Cat, Secretly Canadian. The band isn’t phased. Lawyers are looking at contracts. Labels want to hear new demos. Decision-time looms.
“It was such an awkward group of guys when those dudes started playing music together, like the goofiest, jankiest band,” Morin remembers. “And now they’ve really come together. They’re on fire.”Play a gig, get paid, party
Back in the car, Comenzind, a botany enthusiast, reads a book on entropy. Hoover plays Nintendo DS and Grubbs navigates the car’s satellite radio for anything listenable—he settles on new-wave jams, like Howard Jones’ “And Do You Feel Scared?”—while reading a black-and-white anime comic book. Sowles laments that he forgot his cell-phone charger.
Hoover needs a string for his Fender Jaguar, so we stop off just north of San Diego in San Clemente at George’s Music Space, an overpriced acoustic sanctuary in an upscale, terra-cotta-roofed strip mall.
The owner, presumably George, asks Grubbs if he’s in a band; he is, of course, and says they’re playing a festival that night.
“Oh cool, what’s the festival called?”
Grubbs: “Umm … Art Festival.”
Art Fag Fest is actually named after the famous S.D.-based Art Fag Recordings, but Grubbs, perhaps wisely, doesn’t go there.
The sun drenches downtown San Diego at 2:12 p.m.; Ganglians are the second band to arrive at Art Fag. The venue is unique: the San Diego Woman’s Club, a service-organization headquarters for elderly ladies that also doubles as a home to local ballerina performances, bridge tournaments and knitting fairs. And rock ’n’ roll blowouts.
The sound check never happens; Hoover says this is the norm. The band goes for coffee with Grass Widow, a three-girl group from San Francisco, the only other NorCalers on the seven-band bill.
Other bands trickle in: Pearl Harbor, an L.A. indie-pop troupe with a 14-year-old female guitarist; Best Coast, trendy; Crocodiles, glam; Dum Dum Girls, four babes in black cocktail dresses who play stoic, Vivian Girls-like rockers; and No Age. Ganglians go on at 7 p.m. Art Fag is an all-ages show and there’s not supposed to be drinking backstage, but of course that’s not gonna fly. Upstairs, the seven bands, groupies and whoever file in and out of a room no bigger than a single at Motel 6, enjoying cold Natty Ice and Tecate.
Ganglians’ set up quickly—they used to be notorious for taking their sweet time—and play for 25 minutes. Hoover’s guitar is bright, almost chamberlike in the auditorium. Sowles breaks the bass-drum head. Their dynamism is a welcome reprieve from the other bands’ unbridled and derivative electric-guitar din.
Grubbs’ liveliness too breaks the night’s mannequinlike styling. On “Make It Up,” he unleashes the mic, his vermicelli-thin legs shuffling side to side; he says Hoover calls this his “noodle dance,” when he first found his stage-presence groove on tour. The crowd, some 200 thick, receives his energy, creeping closer to the stage, which is flanked by a giant Christmas tree.
By 11 p.m., there are less people for No Age’s set than during Ganglians’ eight songs.
The band hits up a nearby afterparty in a surprisingly upscale neighborhood east of the San Diego Zoo. And, just like in Sacramento, the cops arrive and break up the shindig.Car crashes, always a bad omen
Creation stories can be a drag, but the Ganglians kindly, even enthusiastically, detail how they got together nearly three years ago.
The 23-year-olds Hoover and Sowles were high-school buddies in Elk Grove and Comenzind, also 23, attended locally, too. Hoover stuck around after school, but Sowles moved to Washington state, then Buffalo, N.Y. He returned to Sacramento to attend the funeral of a dear friend, a high-school classmate who’d taught him how to play drums, and this reunited him with Hoover. He decided to stay.
Grubbs, 24, grew up in Bozeman, Mont., and moved to Sacramento in ’06 to meet a girl. He worked at Tamaya Sushi on J Street in Midtown and, walking home after work, often heard a band jamming in the attic of a house on J and 23rd streets.
That jam session was Psychic Kindergarden: Comenzind, Hoover and Sowles.
Turns out, Grubbs already knew Comenzind, and so, one day, he brought his “bedroom recordings” to the guys’ practice. Grubbs, though, barely could play guitar. In fact, a freak health scare initially fed his jones for the instrument.
“One day, I was playing Mario Kart at a friend’s house and had one of the most severe anxiety attacks I’d ever had,” he remembers. His chest tightened, the video game’s colors melded together, the room’s white light overwhelmed. On the verge of passing out, all he could muster was to reach for a nearby guitar, which he anemically strummed. He’d been experiencing depression and anxiety for months. The guitar soothed.
Grubbs purchased a four-track recorder and started crafting songs. He painted his apartment’s walls a range of colors, took a bunch of acid and penned ideas. At work on breaks in the bathroom, he’d hum harmonies and whisper lyrics into his cell phone to share later with the band.
Ganglians finished songs, made a CD to sell and got on MySpace. The world outside noticed. Local deejay Roger Carpio gave Ganglians a gig: July 1, 2007, at The Press Club, with Fancie, the Polymers and the Matinees.
Sowles laughs about it now. They were clumsy and took a while to set up—there was actually a fifth Ganglian at the time, Mark Lanning on keyboards. And just as they started playing “Valient Brave”—crash!: Two cars collided at the 21st and P streets intersection.
“Everyone just ran out front. There was glass everywhere. Two fire trucks showed up,” Sowles remembers. Grubbs remembers finishing to an empty room, but that the crowd didn’t miss much.
“It sounded awful, I’m sure,” he says.
In time, though, Hoover says, “There was a certain point when we all started involving ourselves more in the songwriting,” citing “Voodoo” off Monster Head Room as the first example. The mantra was “Let’s practice more, let’s practice,” he says.
Back in San Diego, Saturday’s night show, at The Tower Bar on the east side of town, goes about as well as that first Press Club gig. And there was even a car crash: Just as we load in out back behind the club, a screech-then-crunch fills the sidewalk with rubbernecking clubbers. Is it a premonition? Déjà vu?
In the bar, there’s a boxing arcade and a pull-down movie screen showing a ’60s B-movie about Neanderthal life, which projects behind the stage. Ganglians go first in front of a modest 60 people. A battery dies, a string breaks and, before they can even finish the last two songs—the band’s best tracks—Sowles’ kick-drum pedal bites the dust. Grubbs apologizes to the crowd for not being able to finish the set. Hoover seems pretty dejected.
So why drive all the way to San Diego, roll the dice on another band’s drum set and bass amp and an unseen venue, all for $150? Grubbs says it was probably the year’s worst set.
When you go on tour with a band, you became a roadie by default, so when I’m helping tote gear back to the car, I see Comenzind passed out in the back seat.
The bassist’s having a rough go of it in San Diego, his “punk-rock spirit” running on fumes. He’s sick of bars, drinking, sleeping on the floor and lack of healthy food—and wonders out loud whether he can put up with it much longer.
From the outside looking in, Comenzind appears the odd Ganglian out. On the road, he eats boiled pumpkin slices in Tupperware instead of gas-station fare. Online, he’s rarely part of band interviews or photo shoots. He’s unemployed, like Grubbs, and is frugal with what little money he has, sometimes fasting.
A rain as torrential as a downpour gets in Southern California fills the midnight sky with mist. I offer to take Comenzind to the crash house. Night after night of shows and pints and yelling in someone’s ear over 100-decibel thump ’n’ crunch rock ’n’ roll—I feel his pain.Avoid the ER, Canada, TMZ
When you graduate college, they tell you that it’s the best time of your life. Comenzind and Hoover attended Sacramento City College, and Grubbs flunked out in Montana, but unlike most 20-something rites of passage, band members have singular memories from tour that will endure tenfold most keg-stand rager flashbacks.
Three months ago, riding the critical success of Monster Head Room, Ganglians did their first big North American tour, a 40-plus-day cross-country spree opening for Wavves, featuring Sacto’s Hill and San Diego’s Nathan Williams.
Wavves rode in a van with their tour manager and the bands’ gear; Ganglians followed in their own four-door Hyundai Sonata. Some background: Grubbs and Williams were friends beforehand, exchanging bedroom recordings and chatting online. Earlier this year, Wavves’ popularity blew up. Tours, albums sales, pressure, drugs—in Spain, Williams cracked at the biggest show ever.
He wrote on his blog: “Honest truth is this has all happened so fast and I feel like the weight of it has been building for months.”
So, the tour was both a second chance for Williams, who’d connected with Hill and recorded their forthcoming album here in town, and a first go for Ganglians.
And, like a National Lampoon’s Vacation flick, it had its shenanigans.
Ganglians doesn’t have passports and have to pick them up last minute in Detroit. Then, at the Canadian border, Grubbs admits he ate some marijuana-laced Rice Krispies treats because he didn’t want them on his person.
Unfortunately, the Canadian border holds the band. Ganglians are “nervous,” “cranky” and “blaming each other,” according to Grubbs, worried, unfoundedly, that they won’t be allowed to cross. They get through eventually, and are “celebratory”—so much so they straight up take the wrong turn on the highway and, instead of heading to Montreal, drive right back into the good ol’ U S of A.
Back at the U.S. border, the band explains their mistake. No go: Border patrol isn’t letting them into Barack Obama’s America. And then, as Grubbs says, things get “super intimidating.” Guards interrogate them: Are they smuggling drugs? Did they smoke weed? Grubbs lies—just as his Krispies kick in. The entire band denies everything.
The guards then ask for IDs and, as Comenzind opens his wallet, a pack of Zig-Zags falls to the ground. Border patrol is irate—“See, they’re lying to us!” Grubbs remembers—and corrals Ganglians into a tiny lockdown room.
Anxiety and panic builds; the agents are convinced Ganglians are mules. Middlemen. Smugglers.
Honestly, they don’t really look the part. Grubbs, with long, thin, persimmon-colored hair and a bushy beard, is more Allman brothers than Ahmed Wali and Hamid Karzai. Hoover, whose constant optimism and good-natured beam—especially while ripping his guitar at shows—belies any narco-trafficking sensibilities. Sowles wears too many tight T-shirts and jeans; where would he hide the stash? Comenzind sports too many Cosby sweaters. Case closed.
A guard comes into the room with a sheet of bass-clef music notation, which he puts in front of Comenzind’s face. “Play this,” he demands.
“Of course, none of us know how to read music,” Grubbs now laughs.
The guard is not amused. “I thought you were a bass player?” he scoffs.
And then, without explanation, the band is freed. But not before agents ransack their car: belongings tossed, the trunk cleared out and broken, Comenzind’s bags of seeds and herbs—he’s an aspiring botanist, remember?—on the hood.
The Canadians mercifully recognize them from earlier and let them on their way to Montreal.
The adventure continues. In Brooklyn, the band has a brush with indie paparazzi during the now-infamous Wavves-Black Lips feud. In Dallas, Hoover trips over a knee-high fence, cracks his nose, scrapes his forehead and fractures his arm to the point where he can hardly play guitar.
So, first thing Hoover does in Sedona, Ariz., is climb a mountain with the band. Wearing a sling. On acid. But Sedona’s Bell Rock is some kind of “spiritual energy vortex,” and he wakes up the next morning with an arm that is no longer swollen.
First tour, no major damage. Zach Hill said, in fact, they had it easy: guaranteed money, crowds at every stop.
And they forged strong friendships. “I felt lucky being with a band of people that I care about, being with them on their first tour,” Hill says. “I felt grateful to experience that.”
Hoover and Sowles had a hard time coming off the tour. “Your life is normal. Every day doesn’t have a specific purpose,” Hoover says. “You’re not meeting cute girls.”
“You don’t get to play music every night,” Sowles adds.Never drive on American holidays
Back in L.A. traffic on route to Sacramento, we’re still stopped on the freeway in the Chevy Impala rental car. We try for 10 minutes but the engine won’t turn over. Ganglians and I are easy targets, traffic roaring past at top speeds. I’m at once shocked and relieved that we haven’t been nailed. Yet. Foreheads through windshield, guitars and amplifiers scattered across the freeway—it’s gotten to the point where we’re considering sprinting across three lanes of the high-speed traffic just to get out of this death trap.
Sowles remembers that, when the car had broken down earlier on the trip, it restarted while I was iPhoning roadside assistance. He leans over to suggest: “Use the iPhone.” I look at him like he’s on crack—who am I going to call, Jesus?—but sure enough, when I dial the rental company and jimmy the key—vroom!—the engine restarts.
But the turkey weekend nightmare isn’t over.
We pick up a new rental car, but it takes no less than 15 hours to get back to Sacramento. Traffic stands still for up to a half-hour at a time, over and over again, all the way to Stockton.
Comenzind still feels awful. Finally, amid the quiet hum of idling engines, he speaks his pain: He’s starving. He’s miserable. He asks why the band hasn’t offered up band funds so he can get food.
In Kettleman City, just off the Interstate 5 past Bakersfield, we stop at the busiest pit stop in the history of all pit stops. Comenzind eats at a ramshackle place called Roadhouse, getting a chile relleno sandwich with turkey and a salad. Everyone else gets Jack in the Box and Taco Bell. Food coma. This makes the next six hours only feel like maybe four.
Comenzind, who shares the wheel every few hours, murmurs about how driving too many miles in a lifetime is like riding straight to hell.
It’s nearly 3 a.m., and L Street’s just as empty as when we left. Comenzind wants a ride to his mom’s way out in Citrus Heights, but can’t find anyone to take him, so he passes out face down on the couch, despondent and exhausted.Play a killer hometown gig when you get back
A week later, it’s Sacramento’s coldest night of the year, the first Sunday in December, which also happens to be Ganglians’ last show of ’09. The weather personalities on local TV news are ecstatic at the prospect of snow. Showgoers, not so much. It’s a silent night.
And then, as if Sacramento’s music lovers have some bizarrely clairvoyant ability to know exactly when a show will commence, the undersized venue fills with warm bodies just as Ganglians take the stage.
Arpeggiated blasts from Hoover’s Jaguar kick-start a new song, “Close Encounters,” a high-energy, straightforward rocker with some otherworldly delayed vocal effects and a funky, doo-wop harmony during the bridge. Grubbs falsettos, “My mind is reeling from the truth,” Comenzind and Hoover’s call and response, “You don’t even know that that’s the truth.” The harmony is rich.
The next track is a cover, “Aliens in Our Midst,” which was written by a Sacramento band of lore, Twinkeyz, a popular DIY punk act during the late ’70s.
“Wowsers. Did you hear that? It might snow,” Grubbs jokes.
The last songs, “Make It Up” and “Blood on the Sand,” finally induce a bit of wiggle and jive in the otherwise surprisingly timid, perhaps frozen-over crowd.
Grubb’s voice cracks upon the song’s end, “I don’t want to see your face again, I don’t want to see our faaaaa—” and fades out, hissing and soaring like a crackling log in a fire pit.
“This is the last Ganglians show for a while, so thanks, everybody, for coming out,” he announces. It was their best set of the week.
After the set, Comenzind stands alone stage left near a PA. We haven’t crossed paths since San Diego. I ask if he’s feeling better; he is—and needlessly apologizes for how he felt on the road.
Tonight, there’s an excitement to Comenzind. His eyes are bright, attentive. He’s stoked as he talks about moving back to Midtown, practicing with the guys every day and taking a getaway to Bodega Bay.
“We have to get things together,” he shares. “We have to start writing new songs now.”
During the past week, the rest of the band privately shared a similar mindset. Sowles longs for the days when the band used to jam every day—and can’t wait for those days to return. Grubbs confesses to feeling pressure to write new songs. He wants to lock himself up in a house, alone, for a week and explore new ideas.
Hoover and Sowles also feel a pressure to “match up” with their last album’s “pop-epicness,” as Hoover put it.
“This is our first band. None of us have been through this,” he adds. “We’ve had a lot of success for not being the hardest-working band in town.”
After a year of surprises and nearly constant motion, I’m sure the band will enjoy getting back to basics in 2010.