Wednesday, July 15, 2015

LA History: The Sad Story of Don Knotts Overdrive

Welcome to the Light Show, We're Glad You Came

Once upon a time (1994), there was a band in Los Angeles called "Don Knotts Overdrive". A typical early 90s goof-rock band, they wrote songs about alien abductions and TV shows, and their lead singer (and sometimes the rest of the band) would get naked on stage. I didn't think they were very good, but they had more hooks than the average L.A. band, a cute keyboard player (after L.A. fixture Bobby Hecksher left to start Magic Pacer), and an aesthetic and vision.

Initially, their guitar player was Dan Meyer, who soon quit to join a band called Dashboard Prophets. (Dashboard Prophets would go on to have a song in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and I would eventually join the short-lived-but-great Dan Meyer Project as bass player).

This line-up, founded and masterminded by Taylor Stacy and fronted by Howard Hallis, released an indie CD called "Juggernaut" that my brother Ryan played on and did artwork.

We're Farther Out Than All Of You

Cover artwork for Don Knotts Overdrive demo release
"The Giants of Rock Science"
After Dan left, Ryan joined DKO as their new full-time guitar player. The band quickly reconfigured, ditching their entire original line-up -- including the singer, drummer, and keyboard player -- everyone except bass player/founder Taylor, who had ambitions of pop stardom. My brother became the frontman and guitar player. They picked up a better, harder new drummer and the former bassist in MY band (John Vurpillat) as their keyboard player.

DKO were part of the L.A. "Silverlake" scene at the time, and they were fucking great. They were like a 90s version of Devo, with elements of The Cars, Black Sabbath, and early Pink Floyd thrown in. Taylor and Ryan would probably add a long list of other influences to that list, backing it up with detailed notes and laughing the entire time.

If you saw Don Knotts Overdrive on the right night with the right amount of booze in you and them, they were the best band in the world for a good 15 minutes or so. I have many fond memories of being in the audience or behind the light board or sound board watching them play at key L.A. venues including Spaceland, Mogul's, and The Opium Den.

When they were good, they were amazing, able to play well and entertain the audience at a level that screamed "big time". I particularly liked how they were just as likely to finish their song as they were to segue into a surprising cover, like Falco's "Der Komissar", complete with mock-German rapping and note-perfect musicianship on the backing.

They wrote clever, catchy songs that rocked and started and stopped on a dime. Seemingly about trivial things, like old videogames or a day at the beach, there was usually some of what Nile Rodgers calls "Deep Hidden Meaning".

Between songs they would joke with the audience, and seemed to have an easy stage presence -- a welcome change from the flop-sweat desperation and "look at meee!" or outright hostility that most other bands seemed to project.

Attention quickly followed. They were on some local compilations, including one curated by Exene Cervenka. They even got an original song in a Trey Parker/Matt Stone movie. Not their best work, but gimmicky and silly and catchy.

In the Company of Plastic Men Who Can't Decide

DKO got a manager. Made demos. Played a lot. Got a new drummer (Sean Furlong of Prick). Their keyboard player (my former bass player) was replaced with my former drummer/keyboard player (Chris Fudurich, a noted producer/engineer). This line-up jumped at the first deal they were offered, with a small indie label in Los Angeles.

They had to rename themselves "Head Set" since Don Knotts' lawyers were calling. They got a modest advance which they spent recording an album they didn't like -- despite Chris being a pro producer and engineer, the label wanted to use someone else.

The band refused to tour behind the album. The label sued them. The label won. The band broke up.

That was 15 years ago.

I still listen to their last 2 demos a lot. My brother and Taylor were both great pop songwriters, and their weird competition/friendship pushed them both to constantly write better and better tunes.

I love how effortlessly they blended 30+ years of pop/rock sugar-rush riffs, melodic hooks, and wordplay, frequently with a hidden emotional core. My brother has never been a guy to write songs that are "about feelings" - it's nearly always buried, but peeking through sometimes.

This song, "Passenger", was typical of their high quality and high energy, and, well, being high. For whatever reason, this track didn't make the final album. This demo, like the rest of "New Math", was recorded at my studio in 1998. (Note that I didn't do much on the record, other than showing my brother how to program drums and making a few production suggestions).


After DKO, Ryan played in space-rock band Farflung, writing, producing, and even directing this video (watch it, it is amazing!).


Ryan and Tommy GreƱas (the lead singer of Farflung) were also in Anubian Lights together with famed singer Adele Bertei:

...and also played with former Can frontman Damo Suzuki as part of the Damo Suzuki Network, and recorded 2001's "Metaphysical Transfer":

Ryan hasn't really made music since, save a few projects-for-hire and an instrumental dub EP. It's a shame, because I think he's a way better musician than I am.

As noted previously, Chris Fudurich is a successful producer and engineer, and has recently become involved in local Los Angeles politics. John lives in Texas.

Sean Furlong lives in Cleveland, where he occasionally plays in cover bands.

Taylor, the engine that drove DKO, recorded an album with James Ambrose called "Electromagnetic" (2003). In 2008, Taylor played bass with The Voice finalist Erin Martin, returning to the Whisky a Go-Go for a sold-out show. He still lives in Southern California, where he is a graduate student. His kids are starting to play music.

Don Knotts Overdrive, in their "Head Set" promotional photo.
L-R: Taylor Stacy, Sean Furlong, Ryan Kirk, John (Vurpillat) Kaizen

[Special thanks to Taylor Stacy for providing the press photograph and fact-checking]

Melody Fades/A Personal Note

While I never worked with DKO beyond the occasional "hey, can you run sound and/or lights for us?", I include them in this series because they appropriated half of my band, my brother was involved, and because they used my home studio The Hive to record their "New Math" demo, which led to their signing. They were the hub around which my L.A. history revolved. And I would have worked with them in a minute, if they'd ever asked.

Thinking about DKO and the other bands here is always bittersweet. DKO's lifespan and story more or less mirror my own arc in L.A. But my bands never got a deal and were never the talk of the town. DKO were so good, but made so many predictable and avoidable mistakes before imploding at the cost of numerous friendships and leaving a kind of radioactive crater behind. It was hard to not be jealous at the missed opportunity.

I'm heart-heavy for both Ryan and Taylor, who were really good musicians -- and good friends -- who have both just stopped playing. And talking. Their story is not uncommon. In some sense, they got off easy. Some of our friends ended off much worse, and a small few much better.

I consider all of these stories with more than a little melancholy. For the youth and days gone by. For what might have been, for them and me.

End the dream
Left the scene
Darkened screen
Nothing left to remind me
The emptiness remains
Melody turned away
Memories fade away
Melody stayed restrained another day
"Melody Fades", Don Knotts Overdrive


Rudy Carrera said...

I had the pleasure of working with both Taylor and Ryan at Aron's Records years ago. Both were brilliant musicians, and really good guys. Well said, Anu. DKO deserved a lot better.

Olvrr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walter said...

I was at CMU with Ryan and loved DKO. I wore out the two cassettes I had decades ago (I never got replacements because the ex girlfriend who supplied the originals hated me (for good reason)). Thanks for writing this.

Unknown said...

I stumbled across this by accident... John V. is one of my teachers! He is super laid back and has a doctorate in history. If you bring the band up however he becomes evasive... too bad. I am definitely going to listen to the bands early music if I can.

Unknown said...

John Vurpillat is my history/lit teacher! I am so glad I stumbled across this, wonderfully written, thank you! If there is anyway i can get copies of DKO’s original stuff let me know! I would ask John, but he is super evasive about the whole thing.

Anu said...

Please tell John to get in touch!

Windihari said...

Talk about a small world.....I find this article written by some guy named “Anu” because I found out today that my daughter’s drama teacher Mr. Stacy knew some mutual friends who were part of the Silver Lake music scene back in the 90s and I was looking up information about his band the Don Knotts Overdrive. But I get distracted because, “Hey, I once knew a kid named Anu back when I was in 8th grade and he was in 7th grade. He told me his parents had named him after the Sumerian creator god. I thought the name was unique enough to remember 35+ years later, and the kid was cool enough. We used to talk about the latest punk and new wave bands with my good friend Tim Reynolds at the back of a really long bus ride to and from school. Yeah, I thought to myself, that would be a crazy coincidence if this blogger was that kid. Probably not. I mean, he’d have to be born in 1969 and have lived in Virginia in the 1980s. Wait, his blog says he was born in 1969. He went to Langley High the DC area? is it you, Anu?! Did you go to Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly, VA?!?! Could the world actually be THAT small TWICE in the same day?!

Windihari said...

The world IS THAT small! You identity has been confirmed. You are indeed the very Anu I rode the bus to middle school with. I apologize for being a snarky eighth grader to a precocious seventh grader who I treated like an annoying little brother. I wish I had taken the time to get to know you better since your taste in movies, music and books actually corresponds to my own. I missed the opportunity to make an intelligent and interesting friend. I am incredibly pleased to know you have gone on to grab life by the horns and become successful. Best wishes for your future and please keep up the blog. I enjoy how you have a keen ability to capture the authentic flavor of what it felt like to be alive during these exciting times. I look forward to reading more.