Fortunes can change quickly in rock 'n' roll. Three years ago, Lance Whitson and Mark Cohen looked to be on their way up. Today they're both trying to find a way back.
Drug abuse left an empty bracket of more than two years in Whitson's career after he had positioned himself as a candidate for big things in the hard-hitting alterna-rock bands Wood & Smoke and Full Tilt Gonzo. Cohen's band, Water, landed a major-label contract and put out a fine debut album in 1995. But Water ran afoul of record-company politics, which can be almost as poisonous as drugs to a rocker's career health.
Now Whitson, 30, and Cohen, 28, find themselves in the same place career-wise--ground zero--as they share a bill tonight at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach. Whitson will front his new trio, Turkish Delight, and bassist Cohen will anchor Telecast, a band he founded recently with alumni of another now-defunct O.C. contender, Primitive Painters.
Water was one of the most touted bands from Orange County when its album, "Nipple," came out on MCA Records three years ago. But the record fell into the black hole that consumes the great majority of rock releases: no promotion, no tour, no airplay, no success.
Cohen said it didn't help that band members had complained in interviews about the label's attempt to outfit it with an image. MCA marketing executives took the griping personally, he said, and let the record shrivel without any promotional juice. Water wrangled its release from MCA about a year later, but, Cohen said in a recent interview, the experience disheartened some of the members and led to internal tensions.
"We had interest [from] another label, but at that point [in 1996] a couple members of the band had just had enough of the business. They were emotionally fatigued and quit playing."
Cohen said he hasn't been in touch since with singer Dean Bradley and guitarist Howie Howell, the two who dropped out. Cohen and Water's drummer, John Guest, tried to keep something going, but eventually Cohen found himself on his own, writing songs at his home in Cypress and casting about for partners to play them.
About six months ago, he decided to jam with drummer Wally Rowin and guitarist Pat Homa, friends since they were all classmates at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove (noted in rock circles as alma mater to three members of the Offspring). Their tenure with Primitive Painters also had been marked by disappointment and internal band tensions. In fact, Homa said in a separate interview, he had doubted he would ever play with Rowin again because of their falling out over what Homa thought was a too-busy drumming style.
"We went into it just to play as friends, without any preconceived notions," Cohen said. Homa, who had been a bassist in Primitive Painters, was playing electric guitar for the first time, and Rowin, who had quit to become a chef, hadn't touched his drums in more than two years. In Homa's eyes, lack of practice had made perfect: Rowin fell naturally into the steady, simple, "less is more" beats that Homa relishes.
"He said he had just become more of a listener. He went off and found his taste, I think, and what he brought back was right in line with what I wanted."
Neither Rowin nor Homa wanted a female singer, but as Telecast auditioned and found no suitable men, Cohen asked them to keep an open mind. A singer-seeks-band want-ad led them to Jenska Ryyppa, a 20-year-old from Finland who was working as a nanny in Long Beach while trying to pursue the rock 'n' roll dream that had been her main motive for coming to California.
"Although this was her first band, her instincts were uncanny," Cohen said. "She was very ambitious and dead serious, and that impressed us."
Telecast's three-song demo reveals a strong voice that has some of the stately swell of Sarah McLachlan, but with a more anxious emotional cast. The band's arrangements are muscular but need tightening, and the hooks could be punchier. Cohen said the need for patient, painstaking development is the lesson he learned from his experience with Water.
"Water only had seven tunes" when it got signed, he said. "This time we'll write around 20 and keep playing, to get more live experience and take a little time to develop more songs. We're not going to rush into anything."
Life was a rush for Lance Whitson back in 1995. He had just moved to Hollywood from Long Beach, his longtime base where Wood & Smoke had become one of the most popular acts at Bogart's, the hub of the early-'90s O.C./Long Beach alternative-rock scene.
Two of Whitson's songs made it into the film "Empire Records," and though they weren't on the successful soundtrack album to the movie, they brought him a nice payday. Full Tilt Gonzo's bassist, Scott Evers, joined Urge Overkill, and Whitson got drafted as an adjunct guitarist for several of the Chicago band's high-profile shows.
"It seemed like I was meeting the right people" to forward a career, Whitson said. Except for the ones who became his drug buddies.