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Pop Music | L.A. Sounds

He's Their Pet Project Now

Two members of L.A's Wondermints set their 'retro-futurist' music aside for the chance to back up Brian Wilson.

September 24, 2000|NATALIE NICHOLS | Natalie Nichols is a regular contributor to Calendar

Drifting down a marble staircase, familiar sounds beckon from the plush music room of Brian Wilson's Beverly Glen mansion: piano, guitar and the still-innocent voice of the eternal Beach Boy, who is casually rehearsing for his Pet Sounds Symphonic Tour with two members of the Los Angeles pop band the Wondermints, which forms the core of his backing group.

Darian Sahanaja plays the piano and guitarist Nick Walusko sits on the floor, singing harmony while longtime Wilson associate Jeff Foskett strums an unamplified electric guitar. All pay close attention as Wilson, 58, runs through "God Only Knows," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and other songs from the Beach Boys' groundbreaking 1966 album, "Pet Sounds," which they will perform with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the Bowl tonight, part of the "Pet Sounds" Symphonic Tour.

Despite the toll time and his troubled past have taken, Wilson effortlessly reaches into the soul of his music, conveying pure beauty in a way few artists do even at the height of their power.

Still, for someone as historically uncomfortable with performing as Wilson is, it's a long way from this cozy room to the stage. When the Wondermints first began backing Wilson's solo shows a couple of years ago, the intricate, deceptively simple arrangements, subtle orchestrations and sometimes emotionally wrenching sentiments of "Pet Sounds" weren't even on the radar.

"It was more, 'Let's get Brian out to do a few songs,' " says Walusko, 39. Adds Sahanaja, 37, "It was pretty big for him to go from just doing more or less the Beach Boys songs to something he had never done, and to say, 'Let's do "Pet Sounds." ' "

Native Angelenos who as youngsters bonded over their love of Wilson's tunes, Sahanaja and Walusko got the chance to work with their idol after attracting his attention in 1994 at a tribute concert to the Beach Boys in Santa Monica. Still, notes Walusko, "we had no idea we would end up doing this."

Indeed, the Wondermints, which also includes drummer Mike D'Amico, have done well on their own. As one of a handful of acts that set an L.A. pop revival in motion in the mid-'90s, the group had a taste of commercial success when it wrote and performed the groove-alicious title track to the first "Austin Powers" movie.

Last year, it even was named a best new band by Rolling Stone magazine (never mind that its first album came out in 1995). And the group's second American album, "Bali," released last month on Varese Sarabande, is popular in Japan, where the players have been mobbed by fans, and in England, where critics have fawned over it.

The Mints' "retro-futurist" music, as Walusko pegs their blend of Bacharach-style arranged pop, exuberant melodic rock and spacey sonics, shares with Wilson's a catchiness and apparent effortlessness that belie its complexity. But "Bali" is hardly a nostalgia trip.

"In pop music, there is nothing original," says Sahanaja. "You're taking elements and combining them in your own way, so hopefully it becomes fresh. I mean, even Brian will tell you"-- he affects a Wilsonian voice --" 'Oh, the Beach Boys? Yeah, I just combined Chuck Berry and the Four Freshmen.' "

Although they are immensely enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime experience, Walusko and Sahanaja are vexed by fans who compare them to Wilson's old band.

"As if [being the Beach Boys] is all we want to do!" says Walusko. Yet the real, if small, downside lies more in the lack of time they've had to further the Wondermints' career, including plans to record another album. Still, says Sahanaja, when Brian Wilson calls on them, "how do we say no to that?"

* Brian Wilson with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, tonight at the Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., 7:30 p.m. $5 to $85. (323) 850-2000.


BACK TO FORM: A South Bay icon from a far less innocent era, punk veteran Keith Morris, 45, also is aided by local luminaries on his latest project. The former frontman for hard-core pioneers Black Flag and the Circle Jerks has been bedeviled by medical problems from diabetes to appendicitis over the last couple of years, but he's feeling much better, thanks. And, on his debut recording with spoken-word/music ensemble Midget Handjob, he's taking on . . . well, just about everything crummy about life in L.A.

As a spoken-word performer, Morris says, "I didn't feel like doing the Henry Rollins/Jello Biafra/Exene/Wanda Coleman [thing], standing up there by myself. I wanted some musical accompaniment."

Specifically, he wanted something surreal and psychedelic. Recruiting Jon Wahl and Chris Bagarozzi of the band Claw Hammer, Kevin Fitzgerald (the Geraldine Fibbers), Quasar (Lutefisk), Tony Malone (Detox) and Jean le Bear, he proceeded to spew his views during shows at Al's Bar, Spaceland, the Troubadour and the Fold.

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