The silliness of Common Sense

Young at heart. Irreverent. A riot.

These are some descriptions that pop up when Common Sense comes to mind.

What's even better is their own tag: "Six-year-olds in big person's bodies."

As the band members primped for a photo shoot outside Jean Paul's Goodies in Laguna Beach, guitarist Billy Sherman said, "Suck your belly in!"

Lead singer Nick Hernandez, of Laguna Beach, puckered up in response.

The fun began at UC Santa Barbara in 1986, and although four of the original five members have departed, the spirit is intact among musicians who consider each other brothers and have a blast every time they meet — be it at a performance, while surfing or over coffee. They also break into song and talk over each other every so often.

Common Sense predates Southern California's other well-known offerings to the music world — Sublime, No Doubt, Pepper, Slightly Stoopid and the Dirty Heads — a point of pride for Hernandez, the sole remaining founding member.

Hernandez started the band with his UCSB classmates, and over the years his original bandmates dispersed. Common Sense went through a number of personnel changes over the years, but with his current lineup, Hernandez has gone even farther back to his roots with fellow classmates from Laguna Beach High School — 48-year-old guitarists Sherman and Philip Gough. Bassist Larry Young, 49, is from Houston, Texas.

Common Sense released its sixth album last week. The group recorded the 15 tracks for "What's It All About," and then returned to the studio a year later to mix and master it.

At a time when bands disperse after a handful of years or release a hit and vanish into the ether, Gough credits Common Sense's longevity to "stubbornness" and a market for its songs.

"People really love the music," he said. "There's a demand for our sound, and that makes it easier for us."

For Sherman, it goes beyond merely the art.

"The hardest part is finding people who love doing the same thing as you do," he said. "We found that click, that connection and can keep doing it for years."

According to Hernandez, when friction arises, the group moves on instead of harboring grudges. One thing that bonds them is the heavy influence of music growing up.

"I wanted to be in bands the whole time, but I was too shy," said Hernandez, 48, who dabbled in football in his youth. "It's hard to sing in front of people because you don't know if they're going to hate you and your dreams are going to be crushed."

Individually and collectively, music has an uplifting effect on the band members, who followed in the footsteps of their musically inclined families. Not having it would be weird, they say.

"It wasn't a choice; you played music, that was just what you did," Sherman said. "When you play something, it's the best feeling ever. I tell people that we have the best job in the worst business. What we do is amazing — being in a band for our livelihood. The business part of it is crazy with its ups and downs. But playing live? There are 'a-ha' moments every time!"

Since Common Sense evolved from a beach community, reggae stars front and center.

The members traced their roots back to when Jamaican artists, including Mighty Diamonds, Eek-a-Mouse, Fully Fullwood and Soul Syndicate, played at local haunts, where, as kids, they watched and learned.

"We grew up in Laguna and loved reggae, and so we decided to play a style of music that is uniquely our own," said Hernandez, a big fan of Eric Morton. "We took our love of rock, funk and soul and put all of those different elements onto the canvas of reggae — it takes all kinds."

Growing up at a time when Laguna's radio didn't work too well and televisions only broadcast a few channels, Common Sense was influenced by what was predominant on records at the time.

"It was natural for us to listen to our own sounds," Gough said. "We're an island. It isolated us from the mainstream music community, and maybe that's why it's an artists' community. We didn't worry about what the rest of the world was doing."

Common Sense has also been around long enough to see the dwindling power of record companies that once had the music business by the scruff of its neck. Now, YouTube is the name of the game.

"A lot of bands got picked up by labels and the producer said, 'Here's the kind of music we'd like you to play,'" Hernandez said. "They wanted to do that with us, but every time they did, we'd go straight back and play the kind of music we were playing before. Not that we are trying to be rebels — we'd have gladly sold out and made lots of money — but we don't really know how. We are pure musicians and we play what we love."

Drawing on daily experiences for inspiration and song lyrics, the band has truly lived.

For them, life on the road has been peppered with interesting experiences, from showering with a hose or bottles of water to driving on a single-lane road in Montana in a rickety 1960s bus, without central air, in the midst of a blizzard.

Hernandez's dimples flash when he talks about opening for Ziggy Marley in front of 40,000 fans in San Diego, performing with Ice-T and being onstage with Rick James, when the latter smacked himself in the face with a mic.

While the members have a blast following their passions, they use music to effect social change as active members of the Wyland Foundation, Surfers Healing and Surfrider Foundation.

Common Sense has been making waves across the nation, garnering fans from 5 to 75. Their performances, dubbed by Gough a "family reunion," have provided a venue for people to meet, propose marriage and return years later grasping photographs of their children.

"We're not done," Sherman said. "Sometimes, people make an album, they play it out and they're done, they have nothing left to say. Our band's not done. We still have to write songs, record and play. I don't even know what it feels like to be done."

Twitter: @RMahbubani

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