By Ronnie

Wondermints are one of musicís best kept secrets. Here they are right under everyonesí noses, playing phenomenally behind Brian Wilson on his current tour (and his highly successful PET SOUNDS tour of 2000). Yet, they arenít signed to a major label and their three records are available in Japan, where the band is immensely popular. I talked to auxiliary Wondermints member, Probyn Gregory about touring with Brian Wilson, the future of the Wondermints and about Probynís many side projects.

Right: Wondermints, left to right- PROBYN GREGORY, DARIAN SAHANAJA, NICK WALUSKO, MIKE D'AMICO & DAVID NOLTE (picture taken at Club Quattro, July 16th, 1999, Shibuya, Tokyo)

E.C.: You have quite a workload, musically. You are an auxiliary member of Wondermints, a touring musician for Brian Wilson as well as working with the bands, the Eels and the Negro Problem. How do you balance all these? I imagine that you have to prioritize at some point.

Probyn: Balance is indeed the name of the game. Since around 1981, I've continually been in at least two bands at the same time. There're always some that are more remunerative and some that are more fun or that I just have more allegiance to. For instance, for two whole years I turned down any Friday/Saturday gigs because I was making good money and being challenged in the house band at the Groundlings, a skit/improv comedy theater. Did I say ANY? I did a handful of weekend gigs with the Negro Problem during this time for zip just coz I love that band. But to really answer you, I guess I've been lucky that I've rarely had to turn one band down so I could play with another. (Genuflections here)

E.C.: First, I wanted to ask about the Wondermints. You worked with Domenic Priore on the "Look, Listen Vibrate Smile" book, correct? Is this where you first met Darian?

Probyn: The converse is true: I met Domenic through Darian. I'd been bassist in the Real Impossibles, and my replacement was Steve Kobashigawa (who tangentially is an unbelievably soulful singer). As I recall, when Steve heard that I was way into Brian Wilson, he introduced me to fellow disciple Darian and it was during one marathon SMILE listening session at Darian's that I first experienced the juggernaut that is Domenic, who remains THE most enthusiastic fan I ever met! I went on to edit several projects of Domenic's over the years. By the way, I also worked on the Badfinger book by Dan Matovina.

E.C.: When did this come out? I know there was a book and a video about Badfinger about the time of the VH1 special.

Probyn: I THINK it came out twice, once around 1999 and then again, revised around the time of the VH1 piece (2001?) which Dan was only marginally involved in (too bad, as he's one of the leading authorities on the group). The video I don't know about.

E.C.: I have a special place in my heart for Badfinger - and I was kinda disappointed to see them live in the early '90s. It was only Joey Molland and it was billed as "Badfinger", kinda like a Ringo-only tour as "the Beatles". By the way, if you had your chance to do a song on a Badfinger tribute album, what is your fave Badfinger tune?

Probyn: I too saw the Molland band in the 90s and was disappointed. As for fave tune, I'll have to go home and drop the needle to see if I can supplant the first one that springs to prominence, e.g. "Name of the Game".

E.C.: How and when did you come to join Wondermints and which CD's did you play on?

Probyn: I'd been aware of recordings that Darian, Nick and Steve K were working on (such as the unreleased Lisa Mychols "Winter Dream" LP) and when they first recruited Mike D'Amico and Brian Kassan it was at the nascent stirrings of the "pop scene" era in Los Angeles, probably around 1993. I found myself between bands and hanging out at Wondermints gigs, occasionally sitting in on trumpet. During their Eric Carmen-suggested run of Sundays at the Irish Mist, and especially during the After-dinner Mints lounge/covers shows, I began insinuating myself a bit more (guitar/vocals)and played trumpet on a few tunes on the blue, purple and green tapes that eventually became the first CD. Since then I've played on all the other CDs, mostly guitar and various horns; bass and vocals once in a while.

E.C.: Can you describe your role in the 'Mints? I know you basically play bass, but what else is involved?

Probyn: Actually it has been inaccurately reported that I took over for Brian Kassan as the Wondermints bass player. Although I have on occasion recorded on bass ("Austin Powers" theme, for example), and have been known to play bass some in the live shows, the bass position has been essentially open, with a string of players holding down the chair, most recently David Nolte. Wondermints consists of three writers, and I make no pretense of matching their writing style myself. My role is best described as utility infielder. Whatever needs to be done on whatever instrument, I'll fill in the gaps. Live I usually play second guitar (sometimes parts that Nick played on the record), sing and occasionally blat on some horn or other.

E.C.: In your opinion, why haven't Wondermints been signed to a major label? Let me rephrase that's a label which will domestically produce and promote your CD's? Do you think it's the "retro" tag, which has been applied to the band?

Probyn: I think there's no question that the majors have no interest whatsoever in the kind of, for lack of a better word, "niche" music that Wondermints makes, which is meticulously crafted and embraces both modern and older sensibilities: not exactly what you hear on the radio nowadays. And I don't blame the labels ó they have to go where the money is. There have been indie offers, but as always the band has to balance retention of control with pecuniary concerns, both of which come out comparatively poorly in any but an autonomous venture. We have our own recording studio and can make recordings we like in an unhurried manner and sell enough copies to support continuing that. Until something better comes along, that's status quo.

E.C.: I remember one of the members saying something about an official website for the Wondermints. Is that still in the works?

Probyn: Yeah, I thought that was coming on line this year. I'm not sure what the hold-up is. I'm as in the dark as you.

E.C.: It just seems to me that the web is an important tool for a band such as Wondermints! I've seen so many bands successfully market their wares on the net...bands that 10 years ago wouldn't have made a splash. Also, what are your opinions about the mp3 revolution? Successful marketing tool or piracy? (I'm talking about up-and-coming bands, not outright bootlegging, like in the case of SMiLE)

Probyn: I'm not positive, but I think one of the reasons Wondermints doesn't market all the stuff on line is that in some cases the masters are still licensed to certain labels and home-made distribution might violate aspects of the contract. As for mp3, while it is true that the heart of the very demographic most likely to buy recorded product is also the demographic most likely to have file-sharing programs, STILL I believe the free swapping of music (and attendant grapevine buzz that you just can't buy) can only help careers in the long run, not just in terms of immediate record sales, but in concert tickets and ancillary merchandise. When you're a fan, you will spend money at some point. And I think mp3s help people become fans. I guess I'd have more sympathy for the folks crying about being pirated if there was some way to prove that a dip in sales was due to file-sharing and not, as I suspect is often the case, to public indifference to the product in question. If you're tanking you have to, er, face the music, not blame Napster.

E.C.: Will there be a (just) Wondermints tour in the foreseeable future?

Probyn: Until the profile of the band warrants it, there just isn't tour support for it. Though two of our last three gigs were out of the USA, so go figure!

E.C.: More importantly, when will there be a new Wondermints album?! I imagine that the tour with Brian Wilson must have sidelined any plans for a Wondermints studio album. I mean you had the first Brian Wilson solo tour, followed by the Pet Sounds tour and now the British tour.

Probyn: Verily, you speak sooth. The new CD would have been out by now had we not been on tour with Brian. A lot of it's recorded already and this week I'm going in to do some horns. Not sure when the tentative release date is

E.C.: It must be very surreal to be playing in Brian Wilson's band? How exactly did that come about? Have there been any hints of Brian asking the Wondermints to do a new studio album with him?

Probyn: At this point the Brian Wilson Band has been together for long enough that it seems highly unlikely that Brian will ask Wondermints, apart from the rest of the band, to record something with him. It always makes me sad when I see yet another newspaper reporting "Brian's backing band, the Wondermints..." This does a disservice to the other non-Wondermint guys in the band, great players all; PLUS to be picky it's not "THE Wondermints", it's just "Wondermints", dammit! Yeah it is surreal playing in Brian's band. I mean, I've been a fan for so long, and then to be able to be involved in any way in his renaissance ó it is a stone HONOR. Wondermints got asked to be part of the band when Joe Thomas and Melinda Wilson were putting the band together back in early 1999, I suppose because we were on their radar from doing a few things live with Brian and then playing some difficult material at the Brian tribute show in 1995. Originally we had no idea if Brian was going to be able to hack the live gig or not, but he came through like a champ.

E.C.: Have there been any 'suprises' on the set list for Brian's shows? I imagine that "Heroes and Villains" at the TNT Brian Wilson Tribute was pure adrenaline to play! Do you realistically see a day when songs like "Surf's Up" will be added? Who actually comes up with the set and the arrangements?

Probyn: You'll be glad to know "Surf's Up" is in the current set. "Heroes..." remains a difficult one to pull off largely because the vocals are so dense, but it is certainly one of my faves, and debuting it at the Radio City tribute was a blast. There are often surprises in the setlist, we like to mix it up. Brian even had us do "Papa Oom Mow Mow" last year in Harrisburg, PA, we learned it at soundcheck. The arrangements are 99% from the records, or in the case of new stuff, from Brian's or other writer's heads (cf Andy Paley). Setlists, while not handed down by executive fiat, are usually worked out by Brian, Melinda, Darian and Jeff Foskett.

E.C.: I know you can't just go up and ask Brian about Smile and the "Masterplan" for Smile that he was talking about last year, but let me ask you this. One speculation was that the "Masterplan" was to slowly incorporate some of the Smile songs into the live set. I'm not talking about a full-blown Smile tour, but a lot of the songs. What are your feelings?

Probyn: Personally, I'm torn: as a fan, I know if I was paying the kind of ticket price they're asking, I'd want as much SMILE stuff and non-hits as I could get, and here at least is a band capable of doing a lot of that challenging material. And lot of us in the band cherish that stuff and would love to play it. On the other hand, and most importantly, Brian doesn't feel comfortable doing certain tunes, who knows why, maybe because there's some association with a hard time in his life. That's his business, not ours. And after all, who is this show about anyway? Sure, the band could get up and hack out covers of "Cabinessence" and "The Old Master Painter" even, but it wouldn't mean squat without Brian's participation. Not that he can't change his mind ó he originally balked at "Til I Die", and we're doing that one now. I guess the "plan" you outline is unwittingly managing to effect itself, as tunes from that era ARE making it into the set, without any concerted agenda being followed. "Our Prayer" and "Surf's Up" are now staples. Only time will tell what else gets added.

E.C.: Tell me about your work with the Eels and the Negro Problem. Has your work with these bands been put on hold?

Probyn: I was in the right place at the right time with the mercurial Eels. I toured in the trombone/trumpet spot when that was the sound they had going. The new record is somewhere else so I'm tacet for the moment, but I'm still buds with them. I beat their ass at croquet at their studio the other day. As for the Negro Problem, I'm always happy to jump into whatever fray they're ensconced in. When BW ended the Pet Sounds tour, the very next night I joined the TNP tour opening for Counting Crows, and until it fell through, I was to have played with TNP in London this week. It's true I missed the Stew/TNP residency this summer when I was out on the Paul Simon/BW tour, but you can't have everything.

E.C.: Do you write songs and if so, which one of the groups that you are working with will play them?

Probyn: Well, I just finished work on a record by the Mello Cads, which mines loungy terrain, and I wrote or co-wrote a lot of that. Once in a while I'll do a solo show, and that's where my new stuff will see the light of day. Or if you're some little kid, you might have had shoved down your throat one of the 19 songs I did for a Children's Television Workshop science multi-media book a year or so ago.

E.C.: Finally, what do you see yourself doing, musically in say 5 years?

Probyn: Hoo boy, tough one. Probably writing for film/TV, still playing on recordings, maybe even doing a smidgen of live playing. Most likely either spending my time trying to bend the rules of whatever recording medium is industry standard at that time, or learning a new instrument. Pedal steel, here I come! Acoustic sounds interest me most; no synth or sample will ever catch the full nuances and range of statement of a real instrument.

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