I can still remember the first time I became acquainted with the band known as Wonderboy. I was writing for Flash Magazine – the Hampton Roads entertainment publication formerly known as RockFlash – and I’d stopped by their offices to shoot the shit with the editor in chief, Bonn Garrett. When I walked into his office, he handed me a copy of the band’s third album, Napoleon Blown Apart, and said, “Here, this just looks like something you’d like.” The best description of his tone that I can offer is that it was both boisterous and mocking – in other words, he was having fun at my expense (our tastes in music didn’t exactly run parallel) and loving every minute of it – but I have to give the guy credit: though I would come to grow very tired of being teased by him, Bonn generally did know what I’d like, even he himself couldn’t stand it.
I’m still not entirely sure what it was about the cover of Napoleon Blown Apart that set him off and convinced him that this was outside of his musical comfort zone. Maybe he saw the piece of cake and perceived it as an advance warning that the contents would be sugary sweet…? Whatever the case, I was intrigued from the moment I checked out the credits and saw one particular name: Robbie Rist.
If you’re a trivia buff, a TV geek, or a pop culture aficionado, then you may well recognize Mr. Rist’s name. His biggest claim to fame is arguably his role as the infamous Cousin Oliver during the final days of “The Brady Bunch,” but as someone who’d recently begun devouring the Not Lame Records catalog, I had also come to know him as a power pop musician of some note. I knew of Wonderboy because I’d read about their intriguingly-titled second album, Abbey Road to Ruin, but I still hadn’t actually heard anything by them yet. What luck! Here was my chance!
As you’ve no doubt guessed, since I’m taking the time to write a column about the album, I very much dug Napoleon Blown Apart. I would later come to discover that it didn’t really sound much like the previous two Wonderboy albums, as Robbie had decided to embrace the studio and knock out some awesome arrangements with more musical flourishes than ever before, pulling in some of his pals in the Los Angeles power pop community to assist. It’s a bouncy, catchy collection of tunes, but some of the lyrics tug at your heartstrings, like “Taken,” the track that really sold me on the record. And if there’s any Jellyfish fan who can make it through “Insecurity Girl” and not want to own Napoleon Blown Apart, I’d be very surprised, indeed.
I dropped Robbie a line through Facebook to see if he’d be up for chatting about the record, and since he and I have met before and are also on the Audities list together, he gladly acquiesced. Indeed, we talked for so long that I’m going to split this into two parts, so stay tuned for the non-Wonderboy parts of the discussion in next week’s column. For now, however, let’s focus solely on the wonders of Napoleon Blown Apart!
Popdose: Would this be Robbie Rist…?
RR: Indeed it is, sir. How are you?
I am well. You ready to dive right into this thing?
Let’s do it!
So fill me in on the evolution of the Wonderboy sound. How did you guys get started, and how did you end up where you were on Napoleon Blown Apart?
I had been playing with this guy from Cleveland named Paul Pope. He started his career as a member of a group called Molkie Cole. They were signed to Janus Records in the late ‘70s. I think Henry Gross was one of their contemporaries, and so was Al Stewart. They were sort of local Cleveland legend guys, but that band, as they all do, eventually split out, and he was living out here with…well, this is somewhat of a convoluted story, but he was living out here with Jack White, who at the time was the drummer for Rick Springfield. I was looking for both a drummer and some studio time, and Jack sort of passed on being my drummer, but he also had this studio with Paul, so they started recording some songs with me. Paul and I eventually had a band called…well, it had the most commercial title ever: Paul Pope, Robbie Rist, and the Tower of Light Beer Rhythm Section.
Can you believe that we never went anywhere with a name like that?
It’s shocking. Shocking.
(Laughs) So we had that for a little while, and then it turned out that I was just writing more material than Paul, and I wanted to do more, so I basically stole the bass player and drummer and started kinda doing my own thing. And, so, it was those guys, and then we found Patrick (McGrath), who wound up being in the Masticators a lot later. If you go down the line, the first Wonderboy record…at the time, the metal scourge had hit Los Angeles, so for gigs that we played, I thought it would be good if we at least showed that we could play like them, we just chose not to. So on the first record, there’s a lot of proto pop metal moments on it that cause most people who hear it to go, “Ew, gross!” And then I have to explain that, “Well, it was kind of a joke, but sometimes if you’re the funniest person in the room, not everybody gets it.” So then on the second album, we were still in that harder-edged thing, but we were getting poppier. We got poppier and poppier as time went on, until Napoleon Blown Apart, when we kinda went, “Well, everything that we’ve done before, forget it. Let’s just not do that.” So we threw out the click track, cut everything pretty much live, and…there you go. And that seems to be the one that everyone likes, so I should’ve been paying attention.
Well, it was actually the first album that I ever heard by you guys, and it was really only by coincidence. A copy of it turned up at the offices of the magazine I was writing for at the time (Flash Magazine), and, basically, it was handed off to me by my editor with a sneering, “Well, this looks like something you’d like.”
(Laughs) You know, what’s funny about the whole pop thing is that, when people turn you onto something like that, they will tend to say something like that. It’s always kind of an underhanded thing, where they’re, like, “Here, I kinda liked it, too, but I’m not gonna let anyone know.”
It’s one of those albums that’s kind of all over the place stylistically.
Is it really? You think so? I think it all sounds like it’s been done by the same band.
Well, sure, but the music doesn’t necessarily all sound like it’s coming from the same place, if that makes sense.
Yeah, I think I know what you’re saying. That’s kind of my thing, anyway. I mean, it was a real big ‘80s thing to decide what you wanted to sound like, and then you really just sound like that. And there are some records like that which I love very much. I’m the biggest Rainmakers fan on the face of the planet, however there’s a sameness to what they do. Or the Ramones in the ‘80s. It was sort of like, “It sounds like this.” It seems like the ‘80s, because of recording and how it was during that time, you could really standardize the sound by using digital reverbs and stuff like that. And I’ve never been a fan of that. I’m a ‘70s glam, power-pop, glitter, country guy. So why would anybody want to sound the same? During the early stages of the pop thing out here, when Tony Perkins had Bubblegum Crisis and all of these pop bands started showing up, they really sounded different from each other. There really wasn’t *a* way to do it. And I think that, by the time David (Bash) had the International Pop Overthrow in full swing, there became a standard way to make a power pop song. It was going to be a mid-tempo tune, maybe the lyrics didn’t really mean much, they just sounded good as rhymes, and it was some 40-year-old guy who didn’t tour very often. (Laughs) Whatever it was. But to me…I mean, the early punk stuff, the Germs didn’t sound the Screamers, who didn’t sound like the Butthole Surfers. You know what I mean? And then all of a sudden, someone decided that there could be a uniform that you’d wear. So is it stylistically all over the place? I guess, but mostly it’s because, y’know, how many chances do you get? And also, we were on a label where they didn’t care what the hell we did, anyway, because we weren’t going to sell any of them! So we were allowed to be as creative as we wanted to, mostly because we paid for the record? (Laughs) But why make it all sound the same? Listen to a Sinatra record. There are grooves that are all over the place!
Oh, I agree. When I say it’s all over the place, I don’t mean that as an insult.
Nor did I think you did. But should this part of the conversation end up in whatever you write, I just want you to know that I did not just lump myself into the same category as Frank Sinatra. (Laughs)
For me, I think the centerpiece of the album…even though it appears at the end of the record rather than the center…is “Insecurity Girl.” It’s really just a total blow-you-away song.
Oh, thank you!
And I think it’s the best production on the album. Or, at least, you’re the most aware of the production on that song.
Yeah, at least it’s got the most production.
How did that song come to pass? Because you’ve got kind of an all-star cast on that track.
Well, that all happened later. I’m pretty sure it was…I mean, I think everybody in Wonderboy contributed to that song in some way. Patrick wrote the music and the verses, and we all pretty much wrote that tune. At the time…when did that come out? 1995?
Actually, this copy says ’97.
Okay, well, we were probably done with it in ’96. But already at that point, we were all died-in-the-wool Jellyfish fans, and we were just sort of, like, “Hey, let’s try one of those crazy, too-many-parts Jellyfish songs!” And we ended up with that. And then once it got started, once we started recording it, we said, “It needs more stuff. Who can we call in?” And Darian Sahanaja had already said that, if we do have any piano on this thing, that he was a really good candidate for it. Basically, you can go, “Darian, write a song that sounds like it came out of 1969,” and it’ll sound like it. The guy’s an absolute wizard at evoking a time…apparently, since he’s the guy who finished Smile! (Laughs) But he can do it with anything. If you say, “Hey, whip me up something that sounds like Suzi Quatro,” then, bang, off you go, it’ll sound just like Suzi Quatro. So he was in there, and then Probyn (Gregory). And Mike , the other trumpet player on it, was a guy who just produced radio spots in town, we were friends, and I knew he was a trumpet player, so him and Probyn just went in there and played it completely live, so that was very cool. And then, ultimately, everybody at the end, for that whole round business that happens…I would just sit there and go, “Anybody know what to do?” (Laughs) And somebody would go, “Can we start this?” “Yeah, okay.” And then that would stay there. And Quentin Flynn, who’s a big voiceover guy – he was Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in the new “Fantastic Four” cartoon – I have a group with him called the Snozzberries, and he was in Slow Motorcade for awhile, so he sort of flirted with our little rock scene, and he’s on that, too. Yeah, we just threw everybody on. I mean, Jill Meschke from The Negro Problem, she played some accordion on another song. She’s amazing. At the time…it was 1996…the whole pop world here in L.A., for about a year, it looked like it was all possible. For about a year, we were having shows, and people were going to them, and there were even girls there!
Right? And Dave Foley (from the Kids in the Hall) was going to some of our shows, and we were, like, “Wow, maybe this thing has finally got some juice behind it!” And then…I don’t know what the hell happened. (Laughs) It just kind of all fell apart.
Well, on a more uplifting note, another one of my favorite songs on Napoleon Blown Apart is “Taken.” I loved “Why Can’t One and One Be Two?” as well, but when I hit “Taken,” I was, like, “Okay, this is something very different what I’m used to hearing.”
Oh, thank you! Yeah, I heard Andy Partridge once say that all writers of all kinds work in themes, and one of my themes is insecurity. Whimsy, insecurity, and bitterness. That pretty much embodies everything I write about, so that was kind of a whimsical insecurity song. It’s pretty much about seeing someone from a distance and going, “Oh, man, if only I could be with you, it would be the best thing in the whole world!” And, of course, you never say anything about it. Of course not, because you’re a pop guy. (Laughs) Actually, I was listening to Bread this morning, and what I noticed is that there’s a heavy-duty…and I think this an early ‘70s kind of thing…but there’s a heavy-duty melancholy to it. If you look at kids television at the time, like “Lidsville” or “Land of the Lost,” a lot of the shows were about kids trying to get back home. There’s a sadness to all of this underlying stuff, and it’s the same thing when you’re listening to Bread. There’s a melancholy “oh, maaaaaaannnnnnn” vibe to it that I think ultimately ended up going away, but I never shook it off, so it ends up in all kinds of things. There’s always an element of melancholy in most things that I do. Even a happy song has a melancholy sort of vibe to it.
What are some of your personal favorite songs on the album
Aw, man, I don’t know. That’s like asking which kid you like best.
Which, for the record, I almost always offer as the preface to that question. That’s what I get for leaving it off this time.
(Laughs) I don’t know. I think “Why Can’t One and One Be Two?” is a mini-opera. A lot happens in a short amount of time. But, you know, my favorite song is probably the one that Pat sings. “Empty” is my favorite song. Off and on, I’ve been writing with this woman named Jenny Rosen. Since we were teenagers. We’re starting to write again, actually. And, of course, her themes are alienation and resignation, and that’s a really good alienation / resignation song. It’s just, like, “I’m just existing.” That’s what the whole tune is about. It’s pretty amazing. “Taken” is a pretty good song. It’s got some funny stuff in it. “Happy? That’s Me!” is basically a cartoon character who hits himself in the head with a hammer. I don’t know, it’s hard for me to say, because Wonderboy’s a really weird thing for me. I haven’t been a lead singer since. I was in the Andersons, and I sang, but the focus was split up over three guys. After doing that thing for so long and trying so hard, I was a little bummed that no one was particularly interested, you know? But, I mean, how could anybody be interested if it flew against everything that was going on in music at the time?
Matthew Sweet got lucky, because he already had a record deal before Girlfriend came out. If he just would’ve done that record indie, it would’ve sunk like a stone, just like the Owsley record did. Or Jellyfish! There’s a perfect example. They threw boatloads of money at that thing, and nobody bought it. Nobody took the bait on that one at all. So I kind of walked away from Napoleon Blown Apart going, “We were really hopeful on that thing, and we worked really hard on it, and even the best reviews that we got were always sort of underhanded compliments.” They were always, like, “It’s not as terrible as you want it to be,” or, “He does the hardcore opening song (‘Tick’), and then he sings every other song as if it has the word ‘summer’ in the title.” And I’m, like, “I don’t think that’s really a compliment. I think he’s kind of rolling his eyes at it.”
I think that a lot of stuff that I’ve worked on…I’m really proud of every band I’ve ever been in. I think every one of them really brought something to the table that nobody at the time was doing. But the odd thing about it is that nobody ever cared! (Laughs) And I don’t even have a problem with that. I mean, the most you can do with anything is just to make it. I don’t know how bitter Bill Lloyd ever gets about his own output, but he really made a lot of money with his partner (Radney Foster), so I guess it doesn’t really matter.
And it’s not like you didn’t have enough stuff to keep yourself busy after you decided to retire Wonderboy.
Oh, yeah, sure! I mean, the thing is, when the pop thing started happening here again…I started playing in bands – or in clubs, anyway – just at the tail end of the skinny tie explosion. I got in there after the wave had already crested, and it had crashed and was now washing up on the beach before going out to sea again. And I told myself at that time, when I was 19 or whatever years old, “If this ever happens again, I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do as much as I can to be involved with it,” because it’s my favorite kind of music. And, so, I became the utility infielder guy. If somebody was in town playing and they needed a whatever, with a rehearsal, I could make it happen for them. So I did that, I had the Andersons and the Masticators, and there was all of this stuff. Other people have asked…not in any huge way, but, like, my girlfriend now goes, “Why don’t you ever do anything with Wonderboy?” And I’m, like, “Um, well, you know…” I mean, aside from the fact that everyone is spread out across the continent at this point, it’d still be like naming a ship the Titanic.
Plus, I’d imagine that, given how you feel about the band’s relative lack of success, it might be hard to convince yourself to do a reunion show, knowing that, “Well, we weren’t that big to begin with.”
Well, if someone’s willing to give us money for it, I’m ready to go! (Laughs) But just to fly everybody in just to kind of relive something that only we really enjoyed…? I mean, one of the things that the group has talked about all the time is…you never saw us play, did you?
I did not.
There was a certain kind of roar that we created when we played, and I felt like it was sort like riding a wave. It was apt to that. And I wouldn’t mind experiencing that again. I wouldn’t mind experiencing that again at all! But, again, $1200 in plane tickets later, and then you have to rehearse it, and…you play, don’t you?
No, no, I’m just the lowly critic.
Well, even if you know music, you can tell that there’s an awful lot of arrangements, so you’re talking about a good two weeks of rehearsal to make this thing hum again. Who has that kind of time? (Laughs)
Yours truly and Mr. Rist @ The Troubadour in 1999