Psychedelic Sixties’ Bay Area survivors the Chocolate Watchband cut their teeth on bills with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead but went their own way with their heavier British Invasion sound over the past half century… and they have a new album out for 2019!
The Chocolate Watchband, San Jose’s psychedelic proto-punks, set themselves apart from their Bay Area garage-rock peers, The Count Five and the Syndicate Of Sound with a heavier, trippier take on the British Invasion.
The five-member band would go on to influence future punks The Damned and The Undertones with their tripped-out Stonesey fuzz. They kept pace with the likes of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, but instead of following those bands off to Fillmore East with Bill Graham, the group headed south for Los Angeles to record “Sweet Young Thing” for Standells’ producer Ed Cobb.
The Chocolate Watchband – “Sweet Young Thing,” 1967:
Tours and performances in the youth-ploitation films Riot On The Sunset Stripand The Love-Ins soonfollowed amid work on their Tower Records debut LP, No Way Out. Chocolate Watchband’s winding road through the mid-sixties, however, was often a comedy of errors, with a revolving door roster (founding members Ned Torney, Jo Kemling, and singer Danny Phay left and formed the group, The Otherside), a rogue producer, and a label that couldn’t ID the band in a police lineup if they tried.
The Chocolate Watch Band “Don’t Need Your Lovin'”, from the film Riot On Sunset Strip, 1967
In the studio, Watchband found their voice on songs like “Gone And Passes By” and title track “No Way Out”, but pressure from Tower to rush production prompted producer Ed Cobb to record multiple songs he’d written with sound engineers, Richard Podolor and Bill Cooper, while the band was out on tour. Cobb even hired session vocalist Don Bennett to re-record singer, David Aguilar’s reference track on No Way Out’s opening cut, “Let’s Talk About Girls”.
The Chocolate Watchband “Let’s Talk About Girls” – No Way Out, 1967:
Watchband members also clashed with Ed Cobb on No Way Out follow-up, The Inner Mystique, when he imposed whimsical ballads on the album, much to the band’s chagrin. Cobb also brought back Don Bennett and Richard Podolor to record songs for the album’s entire A-Side.
The Chocolate Watchband “She Weaves a Tender Trap” – The Inner Mystique, 1968:
To further complicate matters, Chocolate Watchband’s label, Tower Records, had mistaken the group for a black rhythm and blues band and farmed out their distribution to Uptown Records who sold their albums in Oakland, instead of their top market in San Jose. Uptown even booked the Watchband on soul revues with Jackie Wilson and The Coasters.
Despite sharing the stage with legends and appearing in feature films, Chocolate Watchband lacked the Standells’ strong publicity and the band soon drifted apart. Guitarist Mark Loomis and drummer Gary Andrijasevich left the group to form The Tingle Guild with early Watchband vocalist Danny Phay. David Aguilar left shortly after to finish school at San Jose State University which left Sean Tolby and Bill “Flo” Flores to fulfill Watchband’s remaining gigs (with guitarist Tim Abbott, drummer Mark Whittaker, and singer Chris Flinders) and split up shortly after.
“Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” from The Inner Mystique, 1968, written by Hank Ballard:
In 1968, Mark Loomis, Gary Andrijasevich, and Danny Phay returned to the studio with Sean Tolby and Bill Flores to give the Watchband one last gasp. The end result was the album One Step Beyond, a hodgepodge of psych rock and folk as well as previously recorded tracks with former vocalist, David Aguilar. One Step Beyond was a commercial failure and by 1970, the Watchband was officially out of commission until a renewed interest in psych and garage rock in the 1980s and 1990s introduced The Chocolate Watchband to a whole new generation of fans.
The Chocolate Watchband – “Uncle Morris” – One Step Beyond, 1969
PKM recently spoke with two members of the band, David Aguilar and Derek See.
PKM: David, how did you come to re-form Chocolate Watchband and how did This Is My Voice come about?
David Aguilar: The Watchband reformed after a great fan of the band, Hap Scott, put together a retrospective album of garage rock with many Bay Area bands including the CWB. Originally, I was unable to join in, living in Boulder, but circumstances changed with my father’s health and I rushed out to the Bay Area to be with him and ended up with a free Sunday afternoon to drop in unannounced to the recording sessions. We immediately recorded “King Bee” and “Tell Me” by the Stones. Shortly after that, many Watchband members who were there decided to do a new album together.
We met in Shasta, entered a small studio, and recorded a new album of songs I had just written. On the album was Gary Andrijasevich on drums, Billy Flo on bass, Ned Torney on keyboards and guitars, Phil Scoma on guitars. After a VERY contentious session-we finished the album (The Redding Sessions) that still remains unreleased. Mike Stax [founder and publisher of Ugly Things], hearing the Watchband was back together and recording enticed us to play at 66/99 in San Diego and we accepted! Phil Scoma dropped out and Tim Abbott stepped in on guitars. After playing that show, Tim, Gary and I decided to make a new album together with the addition of an awesome guitarist Michael Reese. Get Away was the resulting album. And, we have continued to play with a few rhythm guitarists rotating in and out to this day!
PKM: David and Derek, can you tell me a little about your experience in the studio working on your new album, This Is My Voice, especially in light of your previous experiences recording with Ed Cobb?
David Aguilar: You write songs, record them, listen to them a lot by yourself in the house, in the car, off your laptop at night in a hotel in frigid Reykjavik, you arm-twist your friends to listen…then it goes to the band to hear it for the first time. In the studio you begin recording…but here’s the fun part…the band apparently heard your song differently…and now they play it differently … same beat, different instruments, different strums on guitars, different drum beat, different structure of tracks…You’ve been listening to this gem for weeks or months by yourself and now it sounds different…sometimes really different…suggestions are made, fights incur, compromises are made, burritos and beer are consumed, the bass player plays an acoustic guitar on this one, your drummer plays electric guitar on this one, Chinese food is involved, a sitar flies in through the door and sings its heart out, tracks are dumped, chopped, massaged, new tracks overlaid…mix, change tones, mix, bring this up, pull that down, change this, record & send new tracks over the web, and then the song begins to breathe…it rises up and it LIVES!
This is the way everyone who ever hears it will remember it. Dylan wanted to re-record many of his earlier songs and that’s why he plays them differently on tour. The Beatles hated the stuff they recorded with Phil Spector, but an album’s an album. You may play it differently on stage…you may suddenly realize there were more things you could have done with it…but there it is! “Standing naked in the sun”…It’s your song.
“Secret Rendezvous” The Chocolate Watchband – This Is My Voice:
This is what I love about creativity and recording today that we never had with Ed Cobb. I’m certain he was having fun messing around with our album…but he really missed the boat with the CWB. We, too, were young songwriters just learning our craft and sound…but that’s what we get to do today…I love it!
Recording with Ed Cobb we never had any input into the finished product. We recorded tracks, went home-three months later, an album arrived that baffled and angered all of us! WHO WERE these studio musicians adding songs we have never recorded? WHY didn’t the songs reflect who we really were on stage?
By necessity, this new album, This Is My Voice, was recorded in pieces as time would permit. Some earlier songs, “Trouble Everyday” and “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” were recorded with Daryl Hooper before Derek joined us.
As a songwriter, the challenge for me is finding the happy medium when I bring in songs I’ve written and recorded and then the band translates it into what they perceive a Watchband song is. My songs do change…mostly for the better, sometimes, maybe not so much. What I think would be interesting would be for real die-hard listeners to hear what the original songs sounded like and compare with what they sound like now. These differences exist because as a band, we all play and hear music very differently these days. Everybody else in the band belong to other working bands who play a variety of music all the time. I do not. To the day I DIE, I’ll never play a reggae song…It’s not my bag. In my writing and guitar playing, Keith Richards is my guardian angel. I play a 5 string Tele with pretty much the same gritty driving abandon he does. So, the challenge for us is to meet somewhere in the middle. Many of the songs on the new album have my guitar work included. I enjoy songwriting and recording in a way I never knew with Ed Cobb. We now have control over our own destiny, music and sound. It’s a beautiful thing!
Derek See: It was an incredible experience! I would have been happy playing parts as dictated, but my creative input was welcome and I was able to add a whole bunch of trippy elements to the recordings; lots of tremolo and fuzz guitar. One remnant of the Ed Cobb sound that permeates into the new music is that big wash of reverb.
PKM: Derek, how did you come to join The Chocolate Watchband and how is Watchband life treating you, so far?
Derek See: My friend Alec Paleo called me one day, just over three years ago, to ask if I’d be interested in joining the CWB, which was an immediate yes. As someone who grew up completely idolizing the band, it was one of those dream-come-true moments. It’s been an incredible thrill, because the music is exciting to play (to put it mildly), but I’ve also enjoyed the friendship of David, Gary and Tim a great deal. I’d be thrilled if it was merely ‘playing the parts’, but it’s a great honor that my creative input is welcome and encouraged. Proud to say that when we play the classic material, it has THE sound. So many 60’s legacy bands get trapped in an 80s paradox of shred guitar and the like, but not the CWB!
PKM: David, can you tell me little more about your experiences on those soul revues Chocolate Watchband was booked on? Also, I just read that Watchband backed Chuck Berry once back in the ‘60s.
David Aguilar: We did one soul revue that I can remember. We had just been signed by the Attarack Corporation, we had cut some tracks in Los Angeles and in some bizarre turn of fate, someone at Capitol Records apparently looked at our name and decided the ‘chocolate’ must indicate in our name, THIS WAS A BLACK ROCK AND ROLL BAND. They assigned us to the Uptown Label, a distributor of black rhythm & blues and 50’s black performers. Chuck Berry was notorious for showing up at a show, playing with a locally hired band, and then getting paid in cash before he left the theater. So, we stepped in and played as his backup band…paying off the theater bouncer to get rid of the original hired band when they showed up to play. It worked!
The shows were set in the ‘50’s revue set-up…lots of performers, 3-4 songs, and then the next group came on stage. With Chuck, we did “Johnny B. Goode”, “Little Queenie”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, and “Roll Over Beethoven”. The Watchband played “I’m a Man”, “Little Red Rooster”, “Better Man Than I”, and “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”, which really fit for that show!
PKM: David, is it true that you started a food fight on the back lot of MGM while you guys were filming Riot On The Sunset Strip?
David Aguilar: Yes, I may have started a food fight but what can I say…I was a young rocker in a strange land! Important Safety Note: You would think a hamburger has stable aerodynamics when tossed…it doesn’t….probably the pickles are to blame.
David Aguillar speaks on RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP at Brattle Theatre as part of their Return to the Grindhouse series 10/09/08:
PKM: David, do you have any favorite live gigs that Watchband has played over the years?
David Aguilar: Wow, what a fun question to answer. I had favorite gigs for many different reasons: Playing at the Fillmore Auditorium with the Airplane and the Dead was always special…Here we were, a new young band straight out of San Jose playing side by side in San Francisco with giants! The Moulin Rouge after hours in Hollywood (doors opened at midnight and any popular band in town would show up to play three songs before rotating out on the circular stage)…We played with Buffalo Springfield and the Doors and hung out backstage with the Monkees and Paul McCartney. I loved the Coconut Grove in Santa Cruz, we OWNED that place! Our dynamite shows in Rome, Purple Weekend in Spain and this summer in Parma, Italy were stratospheric! We were the closing headliners to the largest audiences we have ever seen. And, of course, Little Steven’s Randall’s Island show was surreal. Imagine stepping off the stage and being greeted by the cast from The Sopranos, Bruce (Springsteen), Bo Diddley, and The Pretty Things who had just caught your set!
PKM: David and Derek, how was Watchband’s recent show at The Whiskey and are you guys looking forward to heading up here to the Pacific Northwest?
David Aguilar: The Whiskeywas stressful and FUN! We had some electrical problems initially on stage but they were eventually ironed out. Daryl Hooper joined us and that was a blast! We played some Seeds songs, CWB songs and jammed on old popular stuff. ANYTIME you have a chance to play the Whiskey…how lucky is that?
Derek See: The Whiskey show was a few weeks before I joined, but I was there as an audience member. Definitely looking forward to playing in the Northwest! Playing onstage with the CWB is something I always look forward to, and I hope to do it more often. Watching the audience responses to hearing these songs live is the kind of thing that makes playing music so satisfying.
PKM: David, can you tell me a little about your work as director of public affairs and science information at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and meeting Brian May through your work on the special media team for the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto?
David Aguilar: After leaving music, I pursued an educational career in astronomy. As a kid, I always loved outer space! I directed planetariums and science centers, working for an aerospace corporation, and eventually ended up at Harvard, directing the department of Science Information for both Harvard and the Smithsonian. In 2015, I was recruited to join NASA’s New Horizons team for the Pluto Mission fly-by. Who could pass that opportunity up? While on the team in Maryland, I met Brian May. We talked space, Pluto, and music! When he came to Denver for a Queen show, there were tickets and backstage passes awaiting some of us on the Pluto mission. We chatted before the show and then again afterwards. When I asked him what they were opening with, he just smiled. How stupid a question was THAT?
Next day, Brian and I had a chance to chat in Boulder in the outside courtyard of a beautiful downtown restaurant. We talked about how hard it was today for bands like Queen to record new songs, every detail possible on how he and his dad built his guitar, and a few other fun conversations about space and astronomy. I’m looking forward to seeing him again and giving him the new Watchband CD when we get together in December in Maryland for the NASA Ultima Thule fly-by mission!
PKM: David and Derek, what do you think of the current crop of garage rockers and what would you like people to know about the garage rock shows that are happening in here in the US?
David Aguilar: I like the new young garage rock I hear out there today. The scene is vibrant, creative and alive with new songs and bands. However, with ALL the other types of music being channeled to specific audiences, it is Europe where garage rock thrives and lives! They are not so much into goth, rap, or country. Garage bands in Europe are burning the airwaves with new music. Their songs are more rhythm and driving energy based. CWB remains more psychedelic and melody driven but we meld well together when we play.
One point that surprised me when we recently played in Parma, Italy was how many people had travelled such great distances to see us. We signed autographs and chatted with folks who tracked us down in the hotel lobby, hallways, and on the streets who had come from Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, France, Britain, Greece, Morocco and even two couples from Buenos Aires just to see us. Comments like, “I never in my life thought I’d ever be able to hear you sing your songs live”…was both baffling and humbling…We were just five kids from the Bay Area who were fortunate enough to be part of the most powerful wave of rock & roll music ever borne out of America….that still reverberates today.
Derek See: I know that it’s a matter of semantics, but I prefer the term psychedelic over garage rock when it comes to describing CWB music; the 5 original members were all outstanding musicians, and David is as great of a singer and frontman as anybody. There was never a sloppy ‘bash it out’ element to the band’s music, and it’s the mind-expanding edge that appeals to me, personally. That being said, two modern bands that I especially love that continue on this tradition are The Creation Factory and Triptides. Strong songwriting, excellent musicianship, and that psychedelic throb. I also front my own band, The Gentle Cycle, where the influence of 1966-67 is clearly apparent.