It’s a One Hit Wonderful Life
The Orange County/Long Beach alternative-rock scene can seem as far-flung and disconnected as the sprawling suburban landscape from which it springs.
There is no common “sound” here, the way there was in Seattle when Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were exporting grunge rock in the early ‘90s. The important bands don’t even all know each other personally, nor do they all have strong roots in the same central clubs and core independent labels, as bands do in the metropolitan scenes of the Northwest and San Diego.
The band One Hit Wonder may be the closest thing there is to a hub of Orange County alt-rock, a point where diverging branches are connected by a common trunk into some semblance of a family tree.
That might seem like a lot of weight and importance to place on a single group, especially one little-known outside its home base. But One Hit Wonder, whose first full-length studio album, “Outfall,” comes out on Tuesday, is one of the sturdiest musical oaks you could find.
Over the past four years, the band has proved it can ride out personnel changes and career misfortunes while producing consistently bracing songs full of feeling and barbed humor.
In One Hit Wonder, the catchy melodies of pop and the propulsion of punk are welded into a perfectly tempered alloy as primary singer Dan Root barks and hammers away along with fellow guitarist Trey Pangborn, drummer Christopher Webb and bassist Warren Renfrow. One Hit Wonder hits with a force that’s strong enough to flatten, but instead uplifts with its tunefulness and wry, backhanded affirmations.
A glance at One Hit Wonder’s resume reveals its links to No Doubt, Sublime and the Offspring, the three platinum bands the Orange County/Long Beach scene has produced over the past three years.
Webb, who grew up in Anaheim, was the original drummer of No Doubt, and remains friendly with his former mates. He left No Doubt after two years in the late-'80s, forsaking ska music for a now-defunct, Chili Peppers-style punk-funk band called Twisto Frumpkin. When One Hit Wonder found itself without a bass player in 1995, Webb called on No Doubt’s Tony Kanal to fill in for a series of shows.
“We tried to get [Kanal] to quit No Doubt and join One Hit Wonder: ‘C’mon, you don’t want to be in a band with a girl. But he stuck with it,” Root announced with customary facetiousness during a recent interview as the One Hit Wonder members crowded into the cubbyhole front room of the imported-beer distributorship the singer runs in Signal Hill.
“I think he was gonna join,” Root said, “till we did that one show in a parking lot in Las Vegas to nothing but parked cars.” Actually, it was understood all along that Kanal’s priority was No Doubt, and he was just playing with OHW as a favor.
Webb also played on the independent debut album by Rule 62, which subsequently landed a major-label deal with Maverick Records. Contrary to Root’s teasing assertions to the contrary, the lanky, soft-spoken drummer says he has no regrets about the career choices that have left him bashing mightily for an almost-unknown band and waking at dawn for long commutes to his day job laying marble tile.
“Playing in [One Hit Wonder] is what I’ve always wanted to do. This is my idea of playing music,” said Webb, who founded the band in 1992 with Root and two other gifted rockers who subsequently moved on to more prominent and lucrative opportunities--Robbie Allen, now the front man of Thermadore, and Randy Bradbury, who plays bass in Pennywise, a leading band in the punk-rock underground.
The Sublime connection comes through Pangborn, whose 1980s punk band, Falling Idols, hailed from the same Belmont Shore neighborhood where Sublime’s members grew up.
Falling Idols “was never a big band, just playing randomly here and there,” Pangborn recalled. “But [the members of the then-nascent Sublime] looked up to us. They played our tapes and learned all our songs when they first started their own band.” Sublime covered a Falling Idols song on its 1994 release, “Robbin’ the Hood.”
The Offspring connection came about last year, when Dexter Holland, the Offspring’s singer, signed One Hit Wonder to his punk-specialty label, Nitro Records. OHW’s connections also extend to some of the early pioneers of O.C. punk: Root got his start in the mid-1980s as lead guitarist for Tender Fury, backing local legend Jack Grisham. Renfrow, a Stanton resident who is the only married band member (all but Webb, who is 27, are in their early 30s), made his mark with the excellent but unlucky Cadillac Tramps.
Signing with Nitro renewed One Hit Wonder’s hopes after it seemed the band might be played out. OHW gained momentum locally through 1994 and early 1995 with a series of singles and EPs on small, independent labels. But the band stalled when its then-manager failed to land it a hoped-for major deal.
“That nearly killed the band,” Webb recalled. “Dan was down. We were in a position where we felt totally helpless. We’d been promised a lot.”
Despite the bad luck, Root felt encouraged that “the band had always been progressing and getting better.” OHW rebounded early in 1996 with another indie album, which compiled most of the material from its singles and EPs, along with live tracks that featured Pangborn and Renfrow, who had joined in 1995.
Pangborn started to contribute material to augment Root’s output as the main songwriter, and in 1996 Holland began to scout One Hit Wonder. Root says the Offspring singer saw OHW play repeatedly, and listened to the 1996 album and a series of demo recordings of new material before offering a deal.
“We’re different” from the more hard-core punk sound Nitro has established with albums by Guttermouth and the Vandals, Root said. “I don’t think [Holland] would have signed us when he first started the label. Now he’s branching out a bit.” (Holland was on tour last week and was unavailable for comment).
Thematically, “Outfall” pulls off a neat bit of alchemy by taking those usually leaden raw materials--self-pity and resentment in the wake of a breakup (from Root), and chronicles of drunken debauches (Pangborn)--and turning them into gold.
The magic wands are the writers’ flinty senses of humor and knack for vigorous and concisely colorful wordplay, and an ability to mock themselves along with others. There’s an earthy honesty and admirable underdog’s resilience at play as the songs collectively portray a fellow who’s been turned into a pincushion by the slings and arrows of career disappointment and failed romance, yet is willing to laugh off the pain and see what he can do about extracting the needles.
“Floorlord” finds Root drunk and depressed, but able to chuckle about his sour disposition in a very catchy, upbeat anthem chorus:
Not gettin’ up until there’s a reason to be
Pour one more,
I’m happy for you, I’d rather be happy for me
Other highlights, such as “Useless,” “Keep it Together” and “Bowl of Cherries,” round out Root’s ongoing wry pep-talk to himself, in which he acknowledges the wounds he’s suffered, but scoffs at the notion of giving up.
“I have a feeling that most people who committed suicide would have felt differently if they’d just made it through the rest of the day, the rest of the week,” said Root, who grew up in Huntington Beach and now rents a cramped apartment in Long Beach. “I think everybody feels a little useless once in a while. I know I do. Sleeping in a room where you can open your eyes and see the dirty dishes, you know something isn’t going right.”
The view of the dirty dishes will look a lot better, One Hit Wonder’s members say, if they can pay for their modest lodgings with money earned solely from playing music.
Plans are still being made for the touring that will be essential to establishing the band on the national grass-roots punk circuit. There also may be a video in the OHW’s future.
While Root sees the group as virtually a brand-new band due to its lineup changes and the limited distribution of its previous releases, good notices for its back catalog and the prominent company the members have kept figure to give One Hit Wonder a bit of a background buzz as it starts to make its way.
“We’ve had a lot of good shows,” including bills shared, at various career stages, with Sublime, the Offspring and No Doubt, “and people have heard of us,” Root said. “Everyone says, ‘I’ve heard your name, but I haven’t heard you yet.’ I think things are looking up. If [“Outfall”] could just establish the band and get us to where we could be self-supporting, I’d be very happy with that.”
* One Hit Wonder plays March 14 at the Clipper, 3325 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. 9:30 p.m. (562) 597-0014 (club) or (562) 803-0024 (taped-info line).