The Long Strange Trip Of Tripmaster Monkey
Tripmaster Monkey released its first album in over 20 years, “My East Is Your West,” this week, and like the veering navigation implied by the title, it’s been a strange trek of various directions for the members over the past few decades back to their current reunion.
At their mid-’90s peak, Tripmaster were signed to Sire and Elektra Records, had a video, “Shutters Closed,” on MTV, were part of a soundtrack to a major motion picture, “Naked In New York,” and played everywhere from London clubs to New York and Los Angeles. The band parted amicably in the late ’90s, after being dropped by their label, and members Jamie Toal and Wes Haas eventually moved to the west coast, with Marty Reyhons and Chris Bernat sticking around the Quads. The foursome stayed in touch, remaining friends and having sporadic live reunions, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that they reunited for new material.
The resulting record has proven well worth the wait, showcasing excellent musicianship, exciting innovation and a fun mix of contemporary indie and nostalgia hearkening back to the angular guitar works and eccentric compositions of bands from Pavement to The Kinks.
But how did this all begin? How did the band get their start? And how did they end up here in 2019? Let’s take a look back at the long, strange trip of Tripmaster and flash back to an interview I conducted with the band as a young reporter back in 1996…
In The Beginning
In the fall of 1987 Chris Bernat, a senior at United Township High School in East Moline, was an aspiring singer jamming with his friend, guitarist Dave Reynolds.
“I got us a gig at the UTHS homecoming pep rally, so we decided we needed to get a band together,” Bernat said. “I called Wes because he was really the only bass player I knew of.
“He was playing in this other band and we went to go see them, and I remember first seeing Wes. He had this really progressive-type haircut and was wearing a cutoff U2 T-shirt and I thought, `This guy must be pretty cool,’ so we asked him to join us.”
Haas happened to know a drummer looking for a gig as well. Enter Reyhons — and also Toal, who had been playing keyboards and writing songs with the percussionist.
“We got together and played a couple songs that were so bad, primarily because I didn’t know how to sing,” Bernat said. “Afterwards we were talking and I said I had this gig that we only had to learn one song for, so we practiced Led Zeppelin’s `Rock and Roll’ and performed it at the pep rally as a group called The Reason.”
After the rally, The Reason drifted apart until the following summer, when the foursome — minus Reynolds — reformed as the Deadbeats and began scoring gigs at area venues Stickman’s and Uncle Roscoe’s.
“We were just a bunch of little kids going out and having a good time,” Reyhons said.
“When we started playing Stickman’s the music was almost secondary. We really just told people to come on out and have a good time, and the shows became really wild,” Bernat said. “At first we really stunk, but those shows shaped us up into a band.”
This time there was no disbanding. Toal and Reyhons went off to the University of Northern Iowa, Haas took up at Iowa State and Bernat remained in Davenport, but the group kept together, culling gigs at the various locales.
“There was a while there when it was a little scary. I thought those guys were going to go to college and it was all going to come to this horrible end,” Bernat said. “But it actually worked out really well. We started playing a lot of parties at the different colleges. We did a lot of parties at rugby players’ houses, which really helped a lot because there were people packed in there to the ceiling, and it was up to us to entertain them.”
Just as the Beatles had the Hamburg strip clubs to whip them into shape, the Quad-Cities foursome gained its performance chops on the area college circuit. By 1991 the band, now called Tripmaster Monkey, had built up a sizable regional fan base. “There was a Grateful Dead tribute band called the Deadbeats, so we had to change our name. Chris was reading the Maxine Hong Kingston book, and we thought the title would be a cool name, so we went with that,” Toal said.
“It was around then I started to notice that things were different,” Bernat recalled. “I remember a show we did at Stickman’s where it was so packed people were jammed up to the stage and you could barely move from the stage to the bar to get a beer.”
Band members also started to get recognized a lot more.
“I was at Hy-Vee once, not doing anything, and some girl yelled out from across the parking lot, `Tripmaster Monkey rocks!’ ” Bernat said. “It was kinda weird and silly, because I don’t really get off on the whole star trip or anything, but it was kinda cool, too.”
In addition, the band had begun to record demos of its songs and through persistent pestering got them played on the then-rock bastion KFMH-FM. They also started sending demos to record companies, which led to the band’s big break.
“On one of our demos we had a song called `Liquid Sky,’ which is the song that got us attention at first,” Toal said. “We got a call from TVT Records, which is the record company that Nine Inch Nails is on, asking us to come out to New York so they could take a look at us.”
While the band was enlisting a booking agent to set up club dates in the Big Apple, the TVT rep was fired and never made it to the gigs. But in the meantime, KFMH disc jockey Roberto Nache contacted a friend in New York about “his boys from Iowa coming out there.” The call resulted in Alexandria Addams, a manager who worked with entertainment lawyers, attending the Tripmaster shows and signing the band up.
“At first we didn’t really take it seriously. We didn’t think anything was going to come out of meeting her,” Reyhons said. But Addams booked two return trips for the band to showcase it to potentially interested labels. By the end of the second round of gigs, two contenders had leapt to the fore — ATCO East/West Records and Sire Records.
Seimore Stein, the legendary president of Sire credited with discovering the Talking Heads, Madonna and others, had caught Tripmaster’s gigs and wanted the band for his roster. After he heard ATCO was interested, he tendered the band an offer.
“I was in Cedar Falls on the night Clinton got elected in 1992 with some of the guys from regional band House of Large Sizes, and I told them Sire Records was going to sign us,” Reyhons said. “They were saying there’s no way a big label like Sire was going to sign us.”
The group signed to Sire in January of 1993.
“They mailed the contracts to us and we signed them at Harris Pizza,” Reyhons said. “We had to pass the contracts around to sign them, and we each drank a beer before we signed. It was a fun time, but at the same time we also felt some pressure because this wasn’t just us playing at parties anymore — we had to produce.”
“I thought my life had changed, that this was a big step,” Bernat said. “Some of the people around here were skeptical; some were supportive. And I think my family finally accepted that this was something that could be profitable, that this could be a career.”
“Looking back on it all it’s amazing, it’s so storybook,” Bernat said. “We went to New York and played this club for a record company that wasn’t there, but someone else happened to be at that show and that led us to getting signed.”
`Faster Than Dwight’
Soon after the ink had dried, Tripmaster set out to record its debut EP, “Faster Than Dwight,” at Cedar Falls’ Catamount Studios.
“I remember being in the studio and getting this feeling that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing,” Bernat said. “At the time I wrote in my journal that I had this perfect sense of worth about my life.
“When we first got our CDs I was like `Wow, this is something we created,’ ” Bernat said. “I’d put it on and look at it and muster up some of that surrealism because that’s kind of fun.”
The album cost only $8,000 to make and was a budding hit, charting on the College Music Journal Top 75 chart. The song “Present Tense” began climbing the college charts as well, and eventually it landed on the soundtrack to the film “Naked in New York.” Critics started to take notice of the promising collection of grungy pop.
Jolly Old England
In England, “Faster Than Dwight” was released on Che Records, an independent label with corporate ties to Warner Bros., the same as Sire/Elektra.
Che had a good relationship with the hype-addicted British media, and that paid off in a big way when the label began working the Tripmaster disc. Buoyed by a slew of favorable reviews and burgeoning airplay on the BBC including a slot on the influential John Peel show the EP hit the indie Top 20 chart, and “Present Tense” became a modest hit. Sire decided to strike while the iron was hot, and in the summer of ’93 the group was sent to London.
“It was wild because I always thought once we got signed that I couldn’t wait to take a trip with the band, and here we were doing just that,” Reyhons said. “We flew out of Chicago about 5 in the evening and when we arrived in London it was 7 a.m., and from the time we got off the plane we were on the go, getting our car and equipment and doing the show. Needless to say we were really jet-lagged.”
The first night the band played “probably the worst show of our lives” in front of 1,000 people at Camden Palace, Reyhons said. But the group recovered quickly from time-zone troubles for a few weeks of interviews and impressive shows. The second day, what would become the first single off its debut LP, “Shutter’s Closed,” zipped into the Top 20. Life was good.
“We were by no means big over there, but it was just interesting going so far away and having people be so excited at our shows,” Haas said. “We felt very privileged to be able to do something like that.”
Things were rolling Tripmaster’s way when the band set out to record “Goodbye Race” in early 1994. Band members had their pick of producers for the record and chose Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, the respected Boston duo known for their work with seminal acts Uncle Tupelo, Buffalo Tom and the Pixies.
The group was set up in a fully furnished two-bedroom apartment in Beantown for a month, across from Fort Apache studios, where they worked on the disc. Boston, a huge college town, was a load of fun, Reyhons said.
After recording “Goodbye Race,” the group set off to promote it.
First came a video for “Shutter’s Closed,” filmed at the Kimberly Pines Roller Rink in Davenport. Fans turned out in droves for the all-day shoot, and several of the band members’ pals from their early days — including sound man Rob Cimmarusti and Uncle Roscoe’s owner Ross Haecker — were featured prominently in the clip. The video never reached Alanis-type saturation status, but it did air a few times on MTV’s Sunday-night modern-rock show “120 Minutes,” and a snippet of “Shutter’s” was featured on MTV’s “House of Style,” giving Tripmaster the singular honor of providing walking music for Cindy Crawford.
“I remember being a little kid watching MTV and thinking, `Wow, if I could only do that, I’d have it made.’ But when you’re in the situation, you realize it’s not that big of a deal,” Haas said. “But still, it was pretty cool.”
The second bit of market goosing was a two-month tour of the United States. That wasn’t anywhere near as enjoyable as the video shoot.
“It was just a terrible tour,” Toal said. “Our van broke down in Washington, D.C.; we all caught the flu; and to top it off, we had just finished our first part of the tour when the big corporate shakeup was going on at Warner Brothers in which many of the top brass fled or were fired and several underlings followed. We weren’t getting any label support, and there wasn’t much press during the tour.”
“When the whole Warners thing happened, we got shuffled over to Elektra from Sire/Warners,” said Bernat. “Elektra didn’t want to promote the album because they’d be promoting a Warners album, and Warners didn’t want to promote it because they’d be promoting a band that wasn’t on their label anymore, so we got caught in the middle.”
In a review of what would become Tripmaster’s major-label swan song, one pundit said, ” `Practice Changes’ sounds like the work of a band making its last album.” That turned out to be prophetic.
“I started to write songs thinking that this could be the last album,” Toal said. “I wanted to open things up and really be creative, so I attacked it that way. We began producing this really weird stuff, and we kind of liked the response we were getting. People thought it was really unusual, so we kept going in that direction.”
To retain more of that vision, and to save the big bucks a “name” producer would require, band members decided to produce the album themselves, with the help of local producer Pat Stolley. With the money they saved on production fees they bought their own equipment and moved into the Great Western Studios in Davenport unoccupied at the time to record the disc in the summer and fall of 1995. Other than a few tracks recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, the disc was cut here in the Quad-Cities.
Bernat and Haas said it was the happiest creative moment of their careers. They all felt they had done their strongest work. They also believed they had delivered at least two very strong, radio-ready singles in the ultra-catchy “Sprocket Dick” and the archly melodic “Colts.”
But again, mishaps with the record company occurred.
“We wanted them to release the album in England again on Che, to start a buzz going again, but the label didn’t, and they wouldn’t say why not,” Toal said. “You’d think that they’d want to capitalize on the momentum we’d had before. That’s when we first got the idea that things weren’t going well.”
The album was released on Elektra in February of this year. At that point the label wanted the group to tour, but they hadn’t found a booking agent. When they finally signed with one three months later, the label balked at giving them tour funds or support. Since the band already had a number of shows booked on both coasts they decided to finance the tour themselves, but it drained their savings. Label reps were telling them that Elektra was shafting all of the former Warner and Sire bands, that it was all politics.
That gave them a clearer picture of their darkening future with Elektra.
“When that happened we had a really bad feeling that that was it, they were dropping us,” Toal said. “It really, really hit me hard. But we still had a little hope since we hadn’t heard anything officially . . . yet.”
Rumors began flying and soon after, the band got a nebulous letter from Elektra saying that Tripmaster had more or less been dropped from the label.
The night after they got the letter, band members held a meeting to discuss the future. Haas declared he was leaving the band.
“I feel like I was just the first person to step up to the plate and say something,” Haas said. “I didn’t feel like going through the hassle of trying to pursue another record contract, and I didn’t feel we were in a position to do that.
“The fact of the matter is, we were all broke, we all had to get full-time jobs, so things were going to change regardless. So in my opinion it’s not like, `Wes quit, so the band’s breaking up.’ In my mind it was kind of inevitable. Morale was down; we didn’t have a plan; we had no money. I thought about this for a long time, and while it was a tough decision, I have no regrets.”
“We all know that not having all four guys facing in the same direction with the same intensity, that it’s not going to work,” Bernat said. “The three of us had talked about the possibility of getting another bass player quite a bit, but it just wasn’t a do-able situation. And besides, without Wes in the group, it wouldn’t be the same.”
With that, Tripmaster Monkey became a dead man walking, deciding to finish the shows it had booked through September and then call it quits.
The Last Road Song
“I think we’re at a point right now where we’ve written the best stuff ever and we’re playing the best live shows we ever had. It’s really sad we’re breaking up,” Reyhons said.
“Regardless, it’s been a great run. We’ve gotten to do things that a lot of people never get to do. We’ve got a lot to be proud of.”
Fans and fellow local bands have offered condolences.
“When the rumors got out that we were going to get dropped and a lot of people were telling me, `Oh, my little sister’s really bummed out about that,’ or that people were sad about it, it was really weird,” Toal said. “It wasn’t like an ego-trip thing — it was just that I never thought it would matter to people that much.”
“I know that a few of the younger local bands’ first experience with live shows was seeing us at Uncle Roscoe’s, and that’s cool to know that,” Bernat said. “I’m not saying that if we hadn’t done what we did they wouldn’t be around, but it helped. It’s cool that bands like the Adaptors or Darling have said to us that we’ve been a help to them.
“At the very least I think we showed people that if we could do it — just four guys from the Quad-Cities — then maybe they could, too,” Haas said. “If that encouraged them to try then it was all worth it.”
All four members say a reunion concert is possible, and they will have at least one more song coming out — “Bright Orange N” — on a Quad-Cities compilation disc.
Whatever happens, the band is at peace.
“There were a couple of college generations that passed through with us as the soundtrack to their lives at that time, and that’s a pretty cool accomplishment,” said Bernat.
“I think the most important thing is that we went out with an album, `Practice Changes,’ that we had total control over, that was of good quality and that we can be proud of,” Haas said. “And years from now we’ll still have that. Nobody can take that away from us.”