Sprung Monkey: Hometown Heroes, International Rockstars (Complete Unedited Article)
By: Pamela Jayne
â€œSituation life defines something to live for, something to die, for something to try for.â€ These lyrics from Sprung Monkeyâ€™s first album in â€™92 defined who they were then, and those words still hold true to who they are to this day. Actually, if we stop to think about it, those words define us all. But for these San Diego legends, it always has been, and always will be, all about the music. Here is a taste of the conversation I had with lead singer, Steve Summers.
NUG: This new material you are working on- which of your past albums is it most similar to? Was it a conscious decision to go in that direction?
SM: â€œI would say it is most like our first album, â€œSituation Lifeâ€. There was a conscious effort to make the music more aggressive and energetic. More like the place we started from. On our last couple of records (Mr. Funny Face and Get A Taste), there was a lot of pulling from different directions as to how our music should be. The business people were telling us that certain songs werenâ€™t radio-friendly, but the band adamant about keeping the music true to who we are. We were literally saying, â€œWho gives a shit? Weâ€™re not doing this to get on the radio.â€ Of course, ultimately we did want our music to make it, and that meant being on the radio. So there was compromise. Weâ€™ve grown, and now we know what we want, as well as what is best for the band. These new songs are definitely aggressive sounding, but they also have that ear-candy quality that Sprung Monkey has always had. As hard as we play, we will never lose that melodic sound.â€
NUG: What is it that sets Sprung Monkey apart from all of the other San Diego based bands?
SM: â€œWellâ€¦I guess I would have to say itâ€™s our extreme good looks. To be serious, at the time we came out there was a whole lot of three-chord punk rock, and our music was a blend of not only punk rock, but also metal and other influences. At the time it seemed very unique, I think because it had more musicality to it.â€
NUG: You also seem to be more lyrically driven.
SM: â€œYeah. Well, I became more lyrically driven after our demo because we had some songs on there called â€œLove Slugâ€ and â€œButt Cheeseâ€ that we started to gain success with. It made me wonder, what are people going to think about me when they read these lyrics? So I started to take it more seriously. If someone is going to read the words to these songs and take them to heart, I want it to be something that I am proud of saying. So thatâ€™s why we donâ€™t play â€œLove Slugâ€ or â€œButt Cheeseâ€ anymore.â€
NUG: What are your thoughts on the future of the San Diego music scene?
SM: â€œI canâ€™t say where itâ€™s going in the future, I just know that when we were starting SD had so many amazing bands. Bands that are still some of my favorites- Rocket From The Crypt, Lucyâ€™s Fur Coat, and so many others that I still listen to today. There were a hell of a lot of amazing bands back then. Some of them went on to great success, some never saw any success, but that has nothing to do with how great they were (are). The scene was CRAZY back then, really aggressive. There were actual slam pits, not these little things you see nowadays. I donâ€™t want to date myself, but those downtown SOMA days were like â€œThunderDomeâ€. There was so much energy, so much going on. It was awesome, it felt alive.â€
NUG: Being native San Diegans has obviously influenced your music. What is it about this city that has shaped you as a band? Do you think that your music would be the same if you were from anywhere else?
SM: â€œThe culture here- the surfing, the extreme sports, the whole Southern California vibe. That vibe goes hand in hand with our music. I know that being born and raised in San Diego, we were definitely in the right place at the right time.â€
NUG: If you had to live anywhere else, where would you live?
SM: â€œPu`uhonua o Honaunau, Hawaii. The City of Refuge. Itâ€™s where my mom was a child, itâ€™s where our Hawaiian family is. Friends and family both have had their ashes sprinkled in that bay. It is a very special place for all of us.â€
NUG: Where do you most enjoy playing? Other than San Diego, of course.
SM: â€œWe enjoy playing everywhere. Outside of here, the most success we have achieved is down under in Australia, I think that is because itâ€™s such a big surf country, it has that same feel that we have here. Other than an accent here and there, and a population difference, itâ€™s not much different than San Diego. They have the same vibe, and they have always made us feel at home whenever we toured there. We will be back to Australia, for sure.â€
NUG: While weâ€™re talking about playing shows, what is your favorite song to perform live?
SM: â€œThat would probably be â€œAmerican Madeâ€, because of what it does to the crowd. It absolutely ignites the room. Also, it is always the last song of the set, so I know we have made it through the night and I donâ€™t have to hold back in any way- itâ€™s like, okay this is it, so letâ€™s just go fucking nuts.â€
NUG: Will it always be the set ender?
SM: â€œI believe so. It has been our closer for- well, forever. Iâ€™m pretty sure it will stay that way. This new album is going to have a lot of songs like â€œAmerican Madeâ€ on it. There is going to be a LOT of energy on this new record.â€
NUG: How does each individual band member influence the band as a whole?
SM: â€œWell, Ernie is an insane drummer. He is an absolute beast on the drums. There is a fury to his playing that gave Sprung Monkey the aggressive, energetic thing that people instantly gravitated towards when we first started out. And William, he has always been the quiet guy that is always very calm, but when he hits the stage itâ€™s like dynamite. He is explosive. Plus he has such a love for music that makes you love it even more. He loves the hardcore stuff, so he is the one who incorporates that. Tony came in to replace Pat (now in Unwritten Law and Thousand Watt Stare). Pat is like a brother. He was hard to replace, but we got lucky with Tony. He is the most musically trained of all of us. He has an incredible knowledge of music, from the theory of it to- well, everything about it. I think Tony really tightened us up as a band by bringing that bottom end that interacts with the drums. Not to mention that he is just a good guy with a good heart. My brother Mike, heâ€™s the one who will pick apart things until they are perfect. He takes time to really think it through and wonâ€™t put it out there until it is ready. Heâ€™s a subtle killer on the guitar. He is a far better musician than he gives himself credit for.â€
NUG: Speaking of Mike, does having a sibling in the band change the dynamic of the group as a whole?
SM: â€œI think it does, in good ways and in bad ways. Iâ€™m sure there have been times when the other three guys have had to sit back and watch us do the sibling rivalry thing, where weâ€™re arguing over basically nothing and they canâ€™t figure out what the fuck weâ€™re fighting about. Sometimes the easiest person to yell at is your brother because no matter what, heâ€™s still your brother. Itâ€™s a blessing too. Our parents have said what a joy it has been for them to see us remain so close throughout our lives. We know each other a lot differently than most siblings do, I think. Not only do we work together, we have lived together, weâ€™ve traveled the world together, weâ€™ve experienced all of the ups and downs of this business together. Heâ€™s not just my brother, heâ€™s one of my best friends, and that says a lot because I know many brothers who donâ€™t even like each other. Our whole band is like that though. I donâ€™t know if I made it clear, but musically these guys are all top-notch at what they do. I think the reason we are still together after all of these years is the fact that we can be in a room together, we can be on a tour bus together, we can share hotel rooms because we get along. No drama like you hear of in so many other bands. I can honestly say that weâ€™ve never had any real fights or major tension other than the small, petty shit that you forget about in five minutes. Thereâ€™s never been a fistfight or an â€œI quit the bandâ€ moment after all of these years, and I believe that is a credit to who we are as people. We truly appreciate each other and what we each bring to the table. We enjoy making music together and playing music together.â€
NUG: Do you expect Sprung Monkey to ever call it quits?
SM: â€œI really donâ€™t think so. Itâ€™s amazing to me that so many people still care to listen to us, and that we are still being given so many opportunities. Iâ€™m sure weâ€™ll play until we literally canâ€™t play anymore.â€
NUG: Your lyrics seem to be personal, and very much story driven. Will you name one of your songs and tell us who or what it is about?
SM: â€œA lot of the songs I write may seem as if I am writing about myself, but it is usually about someone who is very close to me. Most likely a good friend and a situation they are going through. I just try to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I would feel if I were going through the same thing. â€œNakedâ€ was a big radio song for us, and it was about a very close friend. â€œGet â€˜Em Outta Hereâ€ was about real people, real characters here in San Diego that I have come across over the years. â€œGood Timesâ€ is about a tour we did with Pennywise and Unwritten Law. Those lyrics may seem to be very tongue-in-cheek, but they are true.
Iâ€™ll tell you the story about â€œMr. Funny Faceâ€. I used to work at a skate shop in Ocean Beach, and there was a young man with Downs Syndrome who used to come in the shop. He was the nicest guy in the world. He had a truly kind and warm heart. He was friendly to everyone, always said hello to everyone. But all of the little groms still made fun of him. They would say, â€œHey look. Here comes Mr. Funny Face,â€ but he didnâ€™t realize that he was being teased, so he was just as nice to them as he was to anyone else. I thought about it, and knew there was something there to write about. Who really is the better man here? Back then, and still today, I believe that he wins.â€
NUG: Does he know that the song was written about him?
SM: â€œNo, he doesnâ€™t. Actually, only a handful of close friends know what itâ€™s about.â€
NUG: Do you still think about him, or wonder what happened to him?
SM: â€œNot only do I think about him, I still see him every once in a while. Heâ€™s an adult now- back then he was a teenager. I havenâ€™t really spoken with him in depth. Just hellos and goodbyes, but he still always has a smile on his face.â€
NUG: Who are your musical influences?
SM: â€œWeâ€™ve been asked that question many times, and Iâ€™ve always liked an answer my brother gave. He said, â€œthe weather.â€ As far as our musical influences, everybody is so different. Me personally, I appreciate so many people for their different styles and contributions to music. I love everything from Simon and Garfunkel to Slayer. Iâ€™ve said it before, and Iâ€™ll say it again: A good song is a good song, regardless of what genre it is or who is singing it. There is no such thing as music that â€˜sucksâ€™- it just might not be what you like.â€
NUG: What about personal influences? Who inspires you?
SM: â€œI tend to gravitate towards people who are generally positive. I canâ€™t stand to be around negative people. You know a bad person when you meet them. You can feel it in their energy before you see it in their actions. I try my best to stay away from those types. I am- we are all so fortunate to have the friends that we do. We gather at my parentâ€™s house for holidays, potluck dinners, or whenever family is in town. My Mom has often said how much her and my Dad love our friends, because â€œno matter what they look like, they all have great hearts. They are all genuinely good people.â€ And sheâ€™s right. My friends are one of the biggest gifts I have been given.â€
NUG: What has been your most memorable career moment, so far?
SM: â€œWeâ€™ve been fortunate to live a life that most people only dream of, and itâ€™s still going. Weâ€™ve traveled the world, weâ€™ve drank beers with people that most only see in magazines- people who we consider our idols. We have done so much cool stuff. Being in this band has been half of my life. Itâ€™s been a huge catalyst in bringing me the group of friends I have, and also in the way that I view life. Since we are still doing it, I canâ€™t really say what has been the best moment. Fortunately we are still going, and donâ€™t have to look back and think about what it wasâ€¦because it still is. I will say that we were very blessed and fortunate to win a lot of San Diego Music Awards. That was very cool.â€
NUG: So you canâ€™t even imagine what your life would be like without Sprung Monkey?
SM: â€œWow. No, I couldnâ€™t. To be where I am now, and to look back on everything, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed just about every single minute of it. I am proud of what we have done. Besides, we all are going to be known for something, right? Iâ€™m proud that Iâ€™m known for Sprung Monkey.â€
NUG: What is your advice to aspiring musicians?
SM: â€œJust do what you do and if it works out, it works out. Donâ€™t chase somebody elseâ€™s vision, or anyone elseâ€™s dream. Donâ€™t ride coattails and donâ€™t get on the bandwagon with everyone else. Just do what you feel is right for you, and youâ€™ll have no regrets.â€
NUG: Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you would do differently?
SM: â€œThere are only a few things I would change musically, for the most part I am very proud of the catalogue weâ€™ve built. The only real regrets I have are the more personal things. Some people, some relationships got tangled up in me trying to find myself along the way. Lots of opportunities were thrown our way that maybe I didnâ€™t know how to handle at the time. I think I hurt a few people along the way. As far as musically- no, no regrets.â€
NUG: All of Sprung Monkeyâ€™s past albums are each very unique in style and sound. Was that done on purpose or was it due to the natural progression and growth of the band?
SM: â€œWell, I think itâ€™s like you said- just a natural progression. There were small compromises here and there, but we back everything we have ever done. We are proud of it all. As you get older you mellow out some. Maybe that means we are having a mid-life crisis right now, trying to go back to our youth and thrash again! Expect this next release to be gnarly, itâ€™s definitely going back to our roots.â€
NUG: Speaking of gnarly things, tell me about your craziest experience while on tour.
SM: â€œWell, we never listen to The Doors while weâ€™re driving, and this is whyâ€¦We were headed home after a tour with Pennywise. We had all of their gear with us because they had to fly out for another show, so we were taking it back home for them. We were driving through Little Rock, on our way back home from Florida, it was probably three or four in the morning so everyone was asleep in the back of the bus. For some reason I woke up and went up front to talk to the driver. He was telling me how he wanted to make a photo collage of all of the artists who had passed away. You know, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jim Morrison. Actually, it was the song â€œRiders on the Stormâ€ playing on the radio that brought the subject up. Right at that moment, we heard the loudest BANG. The front axel of the bus had broken and buckled while we were flying down the freeway. We slid across all the lanes and into the muddy grass (back there, there are no freeway dividers, just a grass ditch). We skidded through that and onto the other side of the freeway. By that time, everyone was wide-awake and in a panic. When the bus finally came to a stop, we were directly in the path of oncoming traffic. Fortunately it was late, so there werenâ€™t many cars on the road. A few of us got out immediately, and cars were swerving to miss hitting the bus, and crashing on the side of the road to avoid hitting those of us who had gotten out of the bus. And then I saw a big diesel truck headed straight at the bus with his brakes locked up, trying to stop. I heard my brother let out the most eerie, blood-curdling scream I have ever heard. It still sends shivers up my spine when I think about it. Then it happened. BAM! That truck t-boned our bus. It was a truck full of pigs, by the way. It was pure chaos. Gear was flying everywhere, everything was flying everywhere. It was surreal. After all the cars were stopped, we ran to the bus. I still think it was a miracleâ€¦no one who had not made it off the bus before the truck hit it even had a scratch on him. Every one of us made it out unharmed. Later, Ernie told me that they could hear the truckâ€™s tires screeching and coming towards them, but it was difficult to move because of the things that had fallen on them. He told me that something inside him told him to just stay put. Just stay put and everything will be fine. Pat was under there with him- they both felt the impact. Through Divine Intervention, they both made it out unharmed. We gathered up what little of the gear that was salvageable, went to the airport and flew home. That experience really solidified our band and crew as a family. We went through a near-death experience together, thatâ€™s the kind of thing that keeps people bonded forever. That happened right before Christmas, and I remember really appreciating being at home that year. Thereâ€™d been years in the past when we were stoked to be playing shows out in Vegas for Christmas, but that year was different. We were all truly grateful to be at home.â€
SM: â€œOne of the new songs is called â€œCaliforniaâ€, it might even be the title of the record. The song itself (California), I started writing while I was in Europe during the winter. I just couldnâ€™t wait to get back to Cali. Thereâ€™s also a song called â€œDrugsâ€, but itâ€™s not about drugs in a good way, itâ€™s about drugs in a bad way. Weâ€™ve known people as close as family who almost lost everything because of addiction, so itâ€™s definitely not about glamorizing drug use. Itâ€™s about the reality. In general, the new album is very high energy, very aggressive. Weâ€™re bringing back that old-school sound. We want to bring these new songs into the venues and have the place be absolutely floored. We want to bring life back into music, into people.â€
NUG: Whatâ€™s next for Sprung Monkey?
SM: â€œWeâ€™re now wrapping up the writing of the new record, and then weâ€™re gonna get in the studio and record it. We are all ready to commit to it full time and just get back to rockinâ€™ again. Our next show is on July 23rd at Qualcomm Stadium for the Americaâ€™s Finest Beer Festival, and weâ€™ll being playing a couple of the new songs there.â€
NUG: Just one more question. What is your opinion of medical cannabis?
SM: â€œIâ€™ll be honest. I didnâ€™t know what to think until my friend Hopper opened a collective over on Adams Avenue. We have been friends-best friends-for years. Iâ€™ve always known how compassionate and caring he is, but now, through the collective he runs, everyone gets to see it. Doing it for the right reason is at the forefront of his agenda. Iâ€™ve recently had the opportunity to come in and work a few days with him at The Green Door Collective, and see how it all works. I get to talk to the patients, and I know that they truly need this medicine. I can see it in their eyes, and hear it in their voices how appreciative they are for the service that he (Hopper) provides. They tell me their stories of how nothing but cannabis has worked for them. Itâ€™s amazing. I can tell you about a situation that hit close to home. Hopper and I have a friend who is very straight-laced. His father had brain cancer and our friend was watching him deteriorate right before his eyes. He couldnâ€™t eat, he was constantly in severe pain, and everything else that goes with having end stage cancer. He had his father try medical cannabis, and it worked on his symptoms. He did pass away, but at least his final days were spent in comfort. Medical cannabis is legit, itâ€™s not just a loophole for people who want to get high. To see how it is being demonized is really disturbing. It just seems cruel to me that people are using this to further their political careers and feed their own egos, knowing that the health and well-being of sick people hangs in the balance. Iâ€™ll say it until I cannot say it anymoreâ€¦alcohol is far worse than marijuana. The fact that one of them is so socially acceptable and the other is so demonized speaks volumes about our society.â€
From the early days of the classic Taylor Steele surf movies to the hay days of providing the soundtrack for blockbuster movies, Sprung Monkey has always been, and will always be, a part of San Diegoâ€™s music history. Theyâ€™ve achieved worldwide success, and yet remain so humble that you are more likely to see one of them at a local taco shop, than in a VIP booth at the hottest new club. If you run into one of them at the airport, itâ€™s because he is catching a flight to visit family, not because he is headed off on a self-indulgent vacation. (Well, they will be hitting the road on tour, so you may run into them there.) As clichÃ© as it may sound, these guys really are all about the music that they make, and they are proud to make it right here, in Sweet Home San Diego.