It may come as a shock to some, but the Chocolate Watchband are still making music and touring (they hit the Tractor Tavern Sunday, December 2). The storied San Jose, California garage-psych band—who flourished in the late '60s with Nuggets-worthy classics such as "Are You Going to Be There," "Let's Talk About Girls," "Misty Lane," "No Way Out," "In the Past"—also have a new album slated to come out next February, This Is My Voice, on Dirty Water Records.
While the Chocolate Watchband reunited in 1999 after a 29-year hiatus, they've not released much new material since then. So that makes the strength of This Is My Voice all the more impressive. For this incarnation of the group, key early members such as vocalist/percussionist David Aguilar, guitarist Tim Abbott, and drummer Gary Andrijasevich have been joined by bassist Alec Palao and guitarist Derek See (both of the excellent psych-rock unit Rain Parade). Together they've created a record that deviates from the Watchband's first phase of raunchy groovers and tender space-outs, opting for a more modern rock sound, yet without sacrificing their keen ear for anthemic songwriting and memorable melodies. These seasoned musicians didn't take the easy route with their original, politically engaged compositions, but did acknowledge their roots with four well-chosen covers of songs by the Mothers of Invention, the Seeds, Bob Dylan, and the Music Machine. In advance of their hotly anticipated Seattle appearance, I interviewed Tim Abbot via email.
The Stranger: When you were playing in the Chocolate Watchband in the late ’60s, did you have any inkling that the group would still be going 50 years later?
Tim Abbott: One of the things that we talked about a lot is how lucky we are that people still want to hear our music and come to our shows and buy our records. We feel very fortunate and appreciative of our fan base. It's always great to get out and play for them and see how excited they are about our music.
Have you made much money from the Watchband catalog and frequently compiled songs, or did you get ripped off like a lot of young bands from the ’60s?
Yeah, being naïve young musicians, we just wanted to get out and play. Unfortunately, the deals that we are doing we're not that great, so there wasn't a lot of money made on the earlier catalog. [Money] is one of the reasons that I left the band in the first place. It's also one of the reasons that we went back and rerecorded some of our old catalog when we did the Revolutions Reinvented album. This is also one of the things that were excited about with what we're doing now with Dirty Water Records. They are taking good care of us and our terms with them are very fair. There's a big difference in what we're doing today compared to what was happening when we were younger.
Does it surprise you that people still care deeply about those early Chocolate Watchband songs and want to hear them performed live in 2018? (As a DJ, I still play “No Way Out,” “In the Past,” “Medication,” and “Voyage of the Trieste.”)
It is a surprise how much people really care about our old music. Some fans have told us that these are some of their favorite songs and they mean so much to them. We are still doing a lot of our early catalog, even songs that we originally didn't perform on.
I don't know if you know the backstory, but our record label at the time, Tower Records, used some studio musicians to do tracks to fill in parts of the record that the band hadn't finished, and worst of all, they brought in studio session singer to sing some of David's parts, because the band had to go back out on tour.
Talk about the reasons for covering “Trouble Every Day,” “Talk Talk,” “Desolation Row,” and “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” on This Is My Voice.
Picking out cover songs to do is an important process. We are always looking for songs that we feel that we can relate to and that are going to fit with our style and that our fans are going to like, as well. One of the things that's important to us is that songs have a message. [The Mothers of Invention's] "Trouble Every Day" is just as relevant today as it was when Frank Zappa recorded it. [Music Machine's] "Talk Talk" has been a favorite of mine for years and was something I really wanted to do. Alec [Palao] and I were friends with the original artist that did it [in 1965]. [The Seeds'] "Can't Seem to Make You Mine" was an interesting story; we originally were approached to do a tribute album for Sky Saxon from the Seeds and they wanted us to do that track. Alec was friends with Daryl Hooper, the Seeds' original keyboard player, and he came down to my studio and we recorded that song. The tribute album never did happen, but we like the song and decided to include it as part of this album.
This Is My Voice is a very good rock record that doesn’t blatantly replicate the Chocolate Watchband’s old glories, but rather sounds like a strong, confident 21st-century band working within a tradition, yet without coming off like a museum piece. This is a difficult thing to achieve for bands that began in the ’60s, took a long hiatus, and then came back and wrote new material. What has changed with the group’s creative process between the first phase and now? What’s been inspiring the songwriting process lately?
One of the important things that we have discussed at length is that we don't want to be a nostalgia band. We like doing our old songs, but the idea of only doing that is not appealing to us at all. We have new ideas and we have new things that we want to express, so we want to bring music in that gives us a chance to grow and express ourselves and to comment and encourage. But we were looking for a careful of balance of maintaining our style, but bringing in some modern elements. It's an interesting process, but I feel really confident that we achieved a pretty good balance on this one.
What are your current live shows like? Do they skew heavily toward older favorites or are you going to be pushing the new album with a vengeance?
We feel that it's very important that are fans who came to hear their favorite songs are not disappointed, so we have made sure that the songs that are always requested are in the show. But we have a good sprinkling of our new material that we are slowly introducing and our hope is that these become fan favorites and will become part of our future lineup.
Please say anything else you wish to that hasn’t been touched on.
We're always excited to get back out and play again, but this time we are very excited to have new music that we feel really speaks to where we're at. David is the main writer for most of the music and considers himself a futurist. We hope to bring awareness to some of the issues that are important for our future—as well as have a great party in the meantime.
You can obtain tickets to the Chocolate Watchband's December 2 show here.