Jan. 13, 2005
by BOB DORAN
SITTING IN THE BOOTH NEXT TO THE JUKEBOX AT THE ALIBI, the members of Que La Chinga [photo above] are waiting for dinner: tuna melts, cheeseburgers and fries. As most of his bandmates drift off in search of one of two free pitchers they'll get as part of their pay for the night, drummer Chris Jaster relates the history of the band, at least from his personal point of view.
"I saw this flier," he begins, and it's clear that this is a classic variation on the tale of American rock `n' roll. "It said, `Drummer wanted for insurgent bluegrass band.' There was this picture, I thought it was the band, but it wasn't. It showed these guys jamming in a garage, one of them playing a violin."
Jaster asks guitarist Damieon Foster, "Who were those guys?"
"The picture showed these '70s country guys playing and smoking weed. I told Keil [Cronin, the band's mandolin player] I wasn't sure what kind of response we'd get [from the flier]. It really looked weird. Chris was the first and only person who responded."
Jaster showed up for an audition with a dumbek drum and a tambourine and was hired immediately -- he says, "That was the beginning of Que La Chinga back in the day."
As I explained, adding a drummer immediately set them apart from bluegrass tradition, since bluegrass bands do not have drummers. And the band never had a fiddler. "We never were a bluegrass band," interjects guitarist/vocalist Bret Bailey, sliding into the booth. "We started out as kind of a folk band. The bluegrass thing was a point of disagreement from the beginning. Keil would bill us as `psycho-bluegrass,' and I was always like, `Bluegrass musicians are always great on their instruments and play really fast.' We weren't that way; we were this folk rock band, but as we went along, we got better instruments and got louder and louder, and basically became a rock `n' roll band -- but we still have a mandolin player."
Returning to the history of the band, Bret explains that Keil put it together for a very specific purpose. "He was at this show at the Shanty talking with Ian, who books shows here at the Alibi. Keil's friend's band, Filthy Jim, was coming to town to play, and he wanted to open for them. He didn't even have a band, but he was super-wasted and he told Ian, `Hey. I've got this band, maybe we could open the show.' And Ian was like, `That sounds cool. The show's in October.' That was in the summer of 2002. He started playing with Damieon; I was added; a couple of weeks later [bassist, Brian] Gibby [Gibson] was added, he was a friend of Damioen's. Chris answered the flier and came over, and that was it. I think we had our first serious practice a week before our first show. At that point it wasn't so much about playing music for the sake of playing; we were trying frantically to get ready for the gig."
As Damieon points out, things were further complicated by the fact that in the beginning Keil had only been playing mandolin for a couple of weeks, having switched from guitar. "But after playing mando for just a week, he had already written a song on it. He was awesome."
One way or another they played the gig, got a good response, and Ian booked them for more shows. They were on their way.
Keil arrives, confirming the Filthy Jim story, and as if to reinforce the point, he's wearing a Filthy Jim T-shirt. He explains that the band comes from Lawrence, Kan., where he lived for a while. "Damieon and I had been talking about getting some music together anyway, them coming here was the kick in the ass we needed to get going. It turned out to be a really cool show. It was worth the long hours of preparation."
Learning mandolin? No problem, he says with nonchalance. "The fingering's different, but I just play it like a small high-pitched guitar."
Bret explains that he and Keil typically write the band's songs. "Most start as a rough idea, just a skeleton. We'll play it for the band and everyone builds on it. My songs usually start out kind of folky, but then they get faster as everyone adds their own twist to it -- then it ends up as a Que La Chinga song.
The band evolved in the same way. "We started out with this acoustic bluegrassy thing, but after that we didn't really have a solid vision for the band. Everyone brought something to the table as far as how they play. So many bands out there are like, `We're going for a 1970s Black Sabbath meets Metallica sound,' like they already have it in their head what they're going to sound like.
"We just wanted to get together to play music, more like here's a song -- we'll play it. If it sounds like country to someone, that fine. If it sounds like punk, that's fine too. It's not like we decided to combine the two; we're just doing what comes naturally."
For Keil the band's sound is a variation on rock `n' roll, which he sees as "the median that connects those two places: punk and country."
Tearing into a dark song called "Angel of Death," the first in their set at the Alibi, Que La Chinga rocks with a punk attitude, although the subject matter is straight out of the folk and country tradition: It's basically a murder ballad told from the point of view of a killer waiting for the hangman.
Built on minor chords, the song builds to a crescendo that has little to do with country, except perhaps country as played by X or the Stones circa Exile on Main Street. Somewhere wailing above the guitars you can hear Keil strumming his insurgent mandolin, but any thought of bluegrass is washed away by the roar of rock `n' roll.
Que La Chinga's next gig is Saturday, Jan. 15, at Humboldt Brews, where they will be joined by local bands Bias and Rita Lynn and the ADD Boys in a benefit for victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami.
To hear some Que La Chinga music, pick up their album, The West Coast Whistle, at your local record store, or go to www.humboldtmusic.com/listings/Que_La_Chinga.htm
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