Wondermints - 2003
By Ronnie

You've gotta admire Wondermints. They pretty much put their own career on hold while performing as Brian Wilson's backup band on his virtually non-stop tours (World Tour 1999, Pet Sounds Tour 2000, USA tour 2001and World Tour 2002). But what band wouldn't want the dream gig of playing on the road with Brian Wilson on four tours?! Between 2000 and 2002, the only albums that the 'Mints have appeared on were for others - specifically Brian Wilson releases ("Brian Wilson Live At The Roxy Theatre"-2000 and "Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live"-2002).

In 2002, Wondermints finally released "Mind If We Make Love To You", their first CD since 1998's "Bali". But the band is not slowing down, recently recording with Brian Wilson for his new solo album and Darian Sahanaja is even touring with Heart this summer. And there has been talk of a 2004 Brian Wilson tour. I talked to Wondermint member Nick Walusko about touring with Brian Wilson, playing on Brian's new album, the hectic schedule that the band keeps and of course their fantastic new CD!

E.C.: I know that the Brian Wilson gig is a dream-gig for ANY band, but doesn’t it sometimes relegate Wondermints career to second place? How do you balance the Brian Wilson stuff with Wondermints career?

Nick: Well, no because we can balance the two. It’s simple a matter of finding out what his schedule is and what our schedule is for either recording or playing gigs. It kinda works to both of our benefits, too. It’s almost like the cliché optimist/pessimist thing. We see it as the ‘glass being half full’, we don’t see it as ‘half-empty’. Even if it wasn’t Brian, it would be something else. When you do some things for somebody else, it obviously takes away from your own stuff. But I mean (laughs)…”come on, you’re playing with Brian Wilson”! When you say it’s a ‘dream’, I’m not taking that away. Yes, it’s a dream, but it’s something we really weren’t expecting. It’s not something like a ‘dream come true’ kinda dream, its more like the guy’s a really great guy, a nice human being to work with. And that’s sometimes pretty hard to find period, alone among those legitimate legends that still exist out there. Other than him and like McCartney and a few other guys, I mean really whose left? That are valid superstars.

E.C.: Brian seems to be touring more than ever now and I recently heard about a 2004 tour being planned. Are Wondermints going to be part of that?

Nick: Well we hope there is something planned, I’m not sure what it is. And I think they’ll be something hopefully this year, too.

E.C.: Did you think the job as Brian’s band would last this long?

Nick: I’d never given much thought, only because Brian wasn’t known for someone who played live a lot. In the beginning he wasn’t sure and we weren’t sure – it was just all like experiment. Incrementally it just got more exciting each time we played new material – and when I mean new material I mean material that’s never been played of his and the Beach Boys catalogue. Of course, we’re fans of the stuff, too. For us to play it, we can only imagine that the people in the audience are like, “wow.” For us it really culminated in the Hollywood Bowl show in LA – it’s like a ‘hometown hero’ thing, too. Here’s this guy and he’s playing a sold out show and were doing PET SOUNDS with the LA Philharmonic. You know it doesn’t get better than that! Not only that but he’s truly happy, I think he trusts the band, trust the family he’s with now. Its funny it’s taken all these years for him to finally get that kind of thing established. I’m glad just to be part of that. The man’s happiness comes before anything else. To answer your question, I didn’t think it was going to last this long because I really truly didn’t know what the response was gonna to be. Obviously the people came out and it was tremendous. Especially even in England, too. Playing like 3 or 4 nights sold out at the Royal Festival Hall with all the elite musicians coming out and checking us out. Kind of a nice thing for Brian. He sees the people like Eric Clapton telling him to his face how much his music has meant to them.

E.C.: I guess a “bonus” of touring with Brian was having him appear on your CD.

Nick: Yeah, that was really fun. That was sort of an afterthought because those were appropriate songs. We had these songs – of them was a song from way back – “So Nice” song and Darian encouraged me to do it for this album, sort of resurrect the song and give it a more ‘modern’ treatment. We just thought that was appropriate for him [Brian] to sing on the chorus of that. And Darian had this song that he just wrote that he thought of Brian. So, it was just one of those things that came together, it was real casual. Very casual the way we approached him and asked him. Those songs would have been done, but it was really nice that he – he contributed like a session musician to it. That’s what we wanted, we didn’t want this to be a big ‘Brian’s on these songs’. It wasn’t about that.

E.C.: Just how long has your CD “Mind If We Make Love to You” been on hold due to the Brian Wilson touring schedule?

Nick: No, it was pretty much completed. Usually turnaround times are a few months. We finished like in late May, it was pretty quick. If literally we had our way it could have been out in June or July. That [touring with Brian] really didn’t interfere with anything.

E.C.: The new CD is one of the most balanced so far with contributions by each songwriting band member. Was it planned that way?

Nick: Yeah, that was intentional. We all throw the songs into the ‘pot’ so to speak, as we were working on demos. We asked Mikey what he had and Darian and I really liked a lot of his music. And we said, “why don’t we do these songs?” And he was pretty jazzed about that. It wasn’t like there’s a rule where you know “Ringo gets one song” – just using the Beatles as an old fashioned template. Because he’s not just a drummer, he plays guitar really well and he plays bass on like 80% of the songs. He’s quite the musician and he just happens to be the drummer in our situation.

E.C.: I know there are three writers in the band, but how do you personally approach the process of songwriting?

Nick: Usually I have pretty much the song developed form a chord standpoint and a melody standpoint. And then the lyrics either comes really quick or I just have to labor and do a lot of revisions. Pretty much I have the songs completed and then see what the guys can do with it. Like giving it a haircut here and there…if its too long or just something works better now that I hear it with the whole band. Whoever the writer is in our band – he’s usually the ‘captain of the ship’. The other two guys usually defer in terms of how that song is gonna go. The others usually contribute some pretty good ideas and obviously that’s how bands ideally should operate. To me it’s a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. It doesn’t matter who has more songs or less songs. Whoever writes that particular song usually dictates what their intention is. And I think that makes for good vision. Because we’re all a little different but we share enough of the similarities to make it sound like it all works together.

E.C.: Going back to your early days, Wondermints seemed to be primarily a recording/studio entity. Was it hard to make that transition to a live presentation?

Nick: Well, originally Darian and I did a bunch of commercial work for radio stations and certain friends that had projects for us to use in advertising and what not. And plus just our love for music, we were sometimes just doing it to entertain ourselves. Darian had a great TASCAM 4-track which I’m sure almost everyone had at that period. We’d just lay down a bunch of ideas and one day we just decided to put a tape together of a bunch of our songs. We played a gig, just him and I together and a drum machine. That’s how we were gonna approach it. We weren’t really looking for a huge band. We were sort of going to be avant garde that way and just have keyboard, guitar and drum machine - and use that as a gimmick. But then we got the other members as we went along and it kind of naturally progressed.

E.C.: Will we ever see a Wondermints-only tour?

Nick: Oh…well…who knows? Basically our lives are a little bit different now too because Mikey is living out in Florida. Darian’s got some commitments he has musically. If we could figure out our schedules, the answer would be ‘yes’…but it doesn’t look like it.

E.C.: On top of this, I heard that Darian is touring with Heart this summer, is that true?

Nick: Yes it is. He’s gonna be the keyboard player. Far as I know they met when we were doing the Brian Wilson Tribute. Ann and Nancy were there, another ‘Wilson’ (laughs). And I guess they really liked what we were doing, particularly liked Darian, got along with him. They really liked his keyboard playing and probably thought, “well hell, we might start doing this”. They kept him in mind, kept in contact. One thing led to another and there he is.

E.C.: What’s up with the official Wondermints website?

Nick: (deadpans) You tell me? (laughs)

E.C.: I mean, it has been saying “coming soon” forever!

Nick: (laughs) You tell me because I have no idea! That’s my answer.

E.C.: When I set this interview up last week with your manager Chris, he said that you were in the studio with Brian. Will that mean a new tour for his new album?

Nick: Well…yeah, I would hope so. All I can say is that he is recording and I think that that in and of itself is a miracle. Obviously if it does get done, we’ll tour and really blow some minds. But as far as I know its great to have him recording. And him producing too, it wasn’t like they had to bring some ‘name’ producer in. That to me was part of the fun of those records were Brian’s vision. I think that now Brian is heading in the direction of pure-Brian. Even if its good or bad, I’d rather have him dictate what he wants to do and hell, the guy’s 60 – he should be able to do whatever the hell he wants. Let him have some fun - If he wants to do boogie-woogie that’s good. Without telling you - I mean I can’t play anything [off Brian’s new album] because I don’t have anything – but what I’ve heard, I can just tell you it’s really exciting. Definitely Brian doing some good writing again, without revisiting anything – it’s not like he’s not like doing anything ‘retro’. But you can just tell it’s still pure Brian.

E.C.: Some would call Wondermints a “retro” band. What is the biggest complement and criticism that the band gets?

Nick: A compliment is when I know when someone likes us for that tag, it’s usually because it reminds them of something that had melodic qualities. It’s like rhythm has been dictating what the radio plays the last 10 years. It seems to have shifted more from a harmonic thing to a rhythmic thing. I can’t even do a value judgement on that – people respond to it as ‘music’, its still music. But, when people compliment us on that end of things, the quote unquote ‘retro’ – I think it just reminds them of a certain ‘type’ of music. We’re obviously not living in a vacuum, so we’re gonna be influenced by certain bands – but we don’t go out of our way to sound like those bands. We’ve come up with an original moniker and that we’re “retro-future”, which just means we’re in the ‘now’. We’re neither in the future, neither in the past. Its funny how…if I can respond to the only so-called ‘criticism’ to that is that: why is it that when Beck or someone label quote unquote grunge/metal/whatever that scene sounds to me like circa ’72 Black Sabbath or Grand Funk Railroad. That’s not “retro”?! If you sound like Led Zeppelin you’re not retro, but if you sound like the Monkees or the Beatles, you’re automatically retro. And it seems to me like that’s just a bunch of baloney. If you are gonna use that criticism, you’re gonna have to take it all the way. I mean, what is original. Rap’s been around for almost 20 years – but no one’s calling that old.

E.C.: Do you think the release of your “covers” CD helped perpetuate the “retro” tag?

Nick: Probably, you know…it was unusual because usually a band makes 7 albums before they would do anything even remotely like that. Like Bowie did PINUPS after many, many albums. Because like he said, “now I’m David Bowie, you know my persona is and let me show you what I like.” But, the Japanese have weird ways of doing things…”here, why don’t you do a covers album?” And we’re like, “O.K.”. It was that simple.

E.C.: I know that Darian produced Lisa Mychols’ “Lost Winter’s Dream”, did you have any part in that?

Nick: Yeah, I was co-producer.

E.C.: Are there any other artists out there now would you like to collaborate with?

Nick: I like Coldplay right now, I mean I liked them like two years ago. I really like their sound.

E.C.: Your first two records came out only in Japan. That must have been frustrating?

Nick: But at the time they were really, really interested. It wasn’t like the American’s weren’t interested, it’s just that they were VERY interested. “Let’s get you guys started and pay for some studio time” and whatnot. We’re gonna go where the work is and we knew ultimately we wanted to work in the U.S. Then other companies started getting interested.

E.C.: There has been talk lately that Jeff Foskett that he was instructed to put together a 35-minute Smile set for an upcoming tour in 2004…have you guys heard about this?

Nick: No, I don’t know anything about that. Nada…

E.C.: Does Brian come up with the set list, or do you have to coax any songs out of him?

Nick: It’s all like what’s interesting. Something like “Till I Die”, I find that very interesting because really it’s never been done [live] and I think we were capable enough to prove to him that we could do it. Every song we’ve done, we’ve done it that way. It’s literally like ‘watch this’, then Brian checks it out and says ‘let’s do it’…and then he throws his lead in. Or him and Jeff sing lead on a lot of these things. The song lists is usually dictated by songs that are just interesting to do. We definitely want to stay away from being any sort of ‘Beach Boys Part II’ or anything like that. It’s a conscious effort to do stuff that they didn’t do, but at the same time making sure that Brian’s really into the music.

E.C.: But you guys must be hyped about possibly playing more Smile songs?

Nick: My God, we’re practically playing all of SMILEY SMILE…I mean, what’s there left to do?

E.C.: Well, there’s the “Elements”, “Old Master Painter”, “I’m In Great Shape”…

Nick: You know, I spoke to Melinda a couple of weeks ago, she was just joking around…she like listed on her hand, she goes, “well, we do this, we do this”…we’re thinking of all the songs. We’ve done all of Pet Sounds and I was joking, “my God, we practically do the whole album as it is.” Well, at least SMILEY SMILE, but you know what I mean?

E.C.: I know you just released a new album, but when can we expect the next one?

Nick: Well, maybe by the end of this year. We can get them out a lot quicker now because we have a good process. It’s all about the usual, looking for the time to do it. Who knows, there might even be projects from the different members of the Wondermints. I’ll just hint at that…

Wondermints Selected Discography-

WONDERMINTS-(Toy's Factory Records, 1995/ Sanctuary Records, 2000)

WONDERFUL WORLD OF WONDERMINTS-(Toy's Factory Records, 1996/ Sanctuary Records, 2000)

BALI-(SONY, 1998/ Sanctuary Records, 2000)

MIND IF WE MAKE LOVE TO YOU-(Smile Records, 2002)

Click here to visit the official Wondermints website