Stunning Tonto Forever

Looking back at one of Tucson's greatest record labels and the project that's bringing the music new life

"To the top! To the top!"

—Chango Malo, "Pied Piper of Rock"

Every band on Stunning Tonto Records shared two goals: pursue their own music and pull together to help build the scene.

The longstanding punk ethos and do-it-yourself model that Stunning Tonto began emulating morphed into a do-it-together agenda, fueled by local pride and deep friendships.

Initially a discarded band name meant to convey legitimacy before there was any, Stunning Tonto came to signify a music scene that stretched to nearly a decade in Tucson, rock bands under a loose umbrella that displayed an endless, heartfelt enthusiasm for each other's music.

Centering on a wave of younger musicians who promoted like hell and began packing downtown-area clubs in 2000, Stunning Tonto did what it could to unite a fragmented music scene with a diverse selection of styles, a stubborn inclusiveness and a commitment to positive support for the bands.

"It was certainly a fruitful period. You had a lot of bands playing under that umbrella, all the time, and any one of those shows you went to back in the day, the first however many rows was nothing but their friends in other bands just rooting them on," says the Weekly's music editor, Stephen Seigel. "In a sense they did create a scene that wasn't there before."

Emerging from the basement headquarters of Chango Malo—Tucson's hardest-working band—Stunning Tonto ended up releasing more than a dozen albums, including the ambitious 2002 compilation that represented 16 bands. Some toured the country extensively in the early and mid-2000s, looking to break through and drag the rest of the scene along with them.

"The camaraderie is what set it apart," says Chango Malo's drummer, Jericho Davidson. "We weren't money-driven and it wasn't about us trying to use other bands to step-stool to the top or anything like that. It was about furthering our scene. There were all these bands that I genuinely loved and I thought that if only people just heard them, they'd be blown away like I was."

At the heart of Stunning Tonto were Chango Malo, scratchingthesurface, Manifold, Good Talk Russ, Red Switch, Lloyd Dobler, Ladies and Gentlemen and the Retainers, one of most tightknit collections of bands the city has ever seen, becoming the bridge between the eccentric Bloat Records era and the indie rock wave that blossomed afterward.

"The Stunning Tonto thing encouraged everybody to find their own voice in their own way," says Corey Reidy of Good Talk Russ. "It wasn't like 'We are a punk scene' or 'We are a heavier scene.' The one quality we had in common was we were putting in the work practicing and hitting the pavement."

The lessons they soaked up from influences like the Minutemen meant it was OK to make whatever kind of music you want if you dedicate yourself entirely to that pursuit. That dedication showed strongest in the live shows—nearly every weekend for years—when the onstage energy hit intense peaks.

"There was this esprit de corps that came from the shared endeavor and people doing the same kind of thing. People supported each other in a very enthusiastic fashion. That was just what you did. You didn't hang around in the back and not participate. You were up front and center. All of that stuff eventually coalesced around the label," says Curtis McCrary, the Rialto Theatre's general manager, who booked bands at Club Congress from 2002 to 2004.

In the early and mid-2000s, the bands put forth "this crazy energy that just kept snowballing," says Christy "Chita" Stevenson, who hosted a local show Sunday nights on KLPX, a rarity even then for commercial radio. "The fans were fans of the whole scene. People had their favorite bands, but they also wanted to earnestly support Tucson. Any given night you could go out and it was this whole landslide of the same people. It felt like a little Austin to me, like it was on its way to becoming the next music scene."

Though the Stunning Tonto roster is history, the musicians continue to populate the current scene of downtown rock bands—like HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS, Church Key and Fort Worth—and the urgent dedication that coursed through the Stunning Tonto projects lives on with a 10th-anniversary celebration.

Davidson and Justin Lillie met as Rincon High School freshmen in 1994. Their first conversation was about starting a band and they spent the rest of high school checking out shows at the Downtown Performance Center until it closed in 1995, then at Skrappy's. Standing shoulder to shoulder, singing along with bands like Gat-Rot, Malignus Youth and Spill Blanket, they found local inspirations that were every bit as real as Fugazi and Bad Brains.

Davidson teamed with guitarist Ian Philabaum and singer Quin Davis in Poot, a goofier band that took after Primus and Mr. Bungle. Guitarist Ryan Couch played in Veering Ever Red, while Lillie had joined up with a band named e on bass. Chango Malo (though the band was almost named Phineas Gage) emerged from the wreckage of those other projects, with David Clark recruited to play saxophone. The band's sound reflected its influences and unique components: heavy rock, soulful edges and chameleonlike shifts. The band played with a crazy wall of sound and an indescribable genre bending amalgamation. The band settled on the term "post-everything," but always insisted it was simply rock 'n' roll.

Chango Malo debuted at Velvet Tea Garden on Oct. 17, 2000, introducing the thunderous, calamitous rock that McCrary would later call a "hyperkinetic energy" onstage.

"The culture we had amongst the Stunning Tonto community, our objective was focused on that live experience," Philabaum says. "We worked hard at recordings at times and eventually we got better at it, but nobody produced an album that was a fucking through-and-through home run. We were really set on creating that experience, for everybody involved, and it was very successful."

At first, the band started a label just to have something to put on their CD, The Business of Fancy Dancing, a debut EP released in 2001. Hanging around Couch's Sam Hughes-area house, which would come to serve as headquarters for the label, they picked up Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven from the coffee table and found the phrase Stunning Tonto.

"It seemed so organic," Lillie says. "I don't think we talked about it much. We knew we were going to start a label. We were so driven at the time. We honestly didn't want it to just be Chango Malo if we were to break it big. We wanted to bring all of our friends along with us, too."

Shortly after Chango Malo's debut, Couch's roommate at the band's headquarters, drummer Justin Bernard, hooked up with a couple friends for what was supposed to be a one-off recording.

Ed Slocum, soon to be a father, wrote a song called "Perfect," a pop-punk power ballad about getting ready to welcome his first son into the world. Slocum recorded the song with Bernard and Danny Scalzo on bass "just to have it," but practicing in the same basement space as Chango Malo, the trio gelled. The settled on the band name scratchingthesurface, for its connotations of youth versus maturity.

"All the songs we were coming up with we felt were coming-of-age songs, diving into things that really matter to us," Slocum says. "I was super straight-edge at the time and it was about development and self-growth for me. I was trying to learn how I felt about things. A lot of the lyrical content was about growing up, so it was scratching the surface of all these emotions."

The first scratchingthesurface show, with Chango Malo and the Retainers at Club Congress, was a natural result of the bands' friendship. Networking and pooling limited resources tied in with the aspirations of the fresh record label.

Manifold started in 2001, playing with a wall of sound, channeling the atmospheric shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine through a post-rock lens. The band—singer-guitarist Todd Alexander, guitarist Tom Beach, drummer Mike McLaughlin and bassist Joe Stover—played its first show in March 2002 at a house party with the Deludes and Red Switch. Manifold reached out to Chango Malo after reading a newspaper article about the band and the fledgling Stunning Tonto label.

Manifold released a self-titled EP in 2002 and then the full-length Departures And Arrivals album in 2003, both on Stunning Tonto. More insistent on touring than anyone else on the Stunning Tonto roster, Manifold would go on to play nearly 200 shows before calling it quits at the end of 2005.

"We were down to pay around and meet other bands, but our goal was to get out of town and tour as much as we could," Beach says.

Manifold mostly stuck to two-to-four-week "vacation" type tours, but the band blanketed the country in its four years, playing particularly well in Midwestern cities—Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City—that embraced the post-rock, shoegaze sound. The band played the legendary New York punk club CBGB before it closed.

"We'd try to get on tour with bands and all of sudden there's this open dialogue," Beach recalls. "Bands are passing through, asking about places to play and needing some help, and then it turns into trade shows. We're getting bands shows in Tucson and getting shows in San Diego or wherever out of it."

Like Chango Malo, most bands' members were Tucson natives and had long been friends. But the scene embraced like-minded newcomers. Drummer Greg Wheaton and guitarist Jeff Imler began playing as Loudmouth Soup in 1997, recording songs on a karaoke machine.

The band lost their Dumb and Dumber-inspired name to another group with a similar affinity for the comedy and turned to Vacation quotes to select Good Talk Russ. The lineup solidified with Aaron Wilson on guitar and Reidy on bass.

All from the East Coast, the musicians found a sound that paired the fast, upbeat, thrashing punk of Fat Wreck Chords bands like NOFX with sad, relatable lyrics, mainly about shitty relationships. For the first show as Good Talk Russ, the band just happened to get paired with Chango Malo at the Double Zero on Congress Street.

"Aaron looked at me as soon as Chango Malo started and said 'Fuck, we can't follow them.' Chango Malo blew us away that night," Imler says. "Their style of music was so different, but they were just the type of dudes who'd become bros. That's how they've always treated pretty much every band."

Good Talk Russ practiced three to four times a week, intent on making their mark on the scene. "You can't bullshit the Tucson fans. You have to be good or they won't go to see you," Wilson says. But, busy with work and family obligations, they ended up losing momentum before being able to fund a proper tour or quality recording sessions. For the band's one Phoenix show, they were paid in laser tag.

Good Talk Russ put out three albums: What's Wrong With Me, Four The Road and The Panglossian Travels of the White Elephant. Though none of the band's albums were officially under the Stunning Tonto label, Good Talk Russ found its place under that banner.

"It was natural. Everybody in that scene was a certain kind of person, just really open and that's what happened to converge," Wilson says. "People with no attitude, no agenda, people who really loved to play music. It was a bunch of music nerds getting along.

"The music will be lost, but people being close like that doesn't happen very often. That community was something special and it was worth every bit of suffering for me to get there and make it happen."

Relatively seasoned musicians for the Stunning Tonto scene, the members of Red Switch had all played in multiple bands before. Guitarists Andrew Skikne and Josh Levine, drummer Ernie Gardner and bassist Trent Purdy started the band in the fall of 2001. Red Switch played its first show to a packed house at 7 Black Cats, opening for the Quadratics.

"I remember being very surprised at the reaction we got. It really did foreshadow what was to come with our own band and with the whole scene," Levine says. "There was this feeling that we were all in it together and helping our friends out and helping out people who weren't our friends, just for the sake of putting together something we could be proud of."

Levine recalls a particular Red Switch show, at a loft party above the Grill with Chango Malo. "I looked up at one point and everybody I could see was singing along to lyrics I'd written and that had never happened before," he says.

Levine described Red Switch as "real primitive, rhythmic rock 'n' roll music" in a 2002 Tucson Weekly interview, but that downplayed the band's gift for melody, the twin-guitar interplay and the songwriting that yielded explosive climaxes. "Red Switch always delivers the money shot," the Weekly's Seigel wrote.

Red Switch released two EPs, in 2002 and 2003, the second an official Stunning Tonto release. As the band got more popular, they were able to follow Chango Malo's lead and put together big shows, with bands on the bill that wouldn't be able to play to that size of crowds otherwise.

"There was this really big feeling of community that I hadn't felt before, or since. Everybody was helping each other," Levine says. "Chango Malo was the first band of our particular generation that got a lot of popularity locally and they used that popularity to help other bands up and make it into a scene."

Living in Yuma, Beau Bowen picked up the guitar at 14. Looking to find a band when he moved to Tucson in 2001, he stopped into Sticks and Strings, where his Sonic Youth T-shirt caught the attention of Kane Flint, who worked there and was starting to feel the itch to play again after a year without a band.

With Flint, Mike Rowden on bass and a Yuma friend, Dale Estabaya, on drums, Bowen formed Lloyd Dobler, playing a hard-edged indie rock that spoke to its members' influences and musical pasts: post-rock, metal and grunge.

"They started playing that were really good and all the stuff I was looking for was laid our right there. All I had to do was contribute parts to it, help them sculpt the songs," says Flint, who had known the Chango Malo crew for years. "I started telling all my friends that I'm jamming with these guys no one had heard of and everybody was really into it."

Davidson set up the debut show for Lloyd Dobler, with Chango Malo, Good Talk Russ and the Beating at the Pima County Fairgrounds

"I thought we were good, but I realized I had to try harder. I was very inspired," Bowen says. "Any time I had played anywhere else, it was small-town guys just barely learning instruments. These guys had their shit together more than any other band I'd played with. I was jealous, too, and I basically had to rethink everything. The songs got better and more creative."

Ladies and Gentlemen, as bassist Garth Bryson puts it, were the "babies" of Stunning Tonto.

The band's roots date to 1998, the beginning of high school for bassist Garth Bryson and singer-guitarist Alex Porter, who formed a band called Letterbox Edition influenced by nerdy rock like They Might Be Giants. Adding Clay Letson on guitar and Mike Herman on drums, the band became Ladies and Gentlemen in 2000.

The band's music grew more serious as Porter's songwriting progressed, but they retained a comical edge, with onstage gimmicks for every show. Ladies and Gentlemen played in a tent, played facing backward and once even recruited friends to dress up like them, while the band members themselves dressed as ninjas, rushed the stage and tied up the imposters.

Bryson recalls when the band was asked to contribute to the compilation, hanging out with Davidson at the Grill, feeling honored to be a part of Stunning Tonto.

"Simply being in that record, whether or not we were the dorky little kids, we definitely got respect from the other guys in well-established bands. It was definitely family," he says.

Singer-guitarist Carl Johnson formed the Retainers just out of high school, inspired by punk bands like Weird Lovemakers and Los Federales he'd seen at all-ages shows at Skrappy's.

The Retainers—Johnson, Ryan Lemme on bass and Dave Williams on guitar—played punk through the prism of host of influences: early mod and garage bands, the pop-punk of Screeching Weasel and post-punk indie bands Jawbreaker and Superchunk.

The Retainers became friends with Ladies and Gentlemen and from the very beginning, they two bands each other out. After a year or so of playing and making more friends in the scene, the Retainers branched out to playing shows with Stunning Tonto bands like Good Talk Russ, Lloyd Dobler and scratchingthesurface.

"It was pretty apparent pretty quick that everybody was friends and it was a cool community to be a part of. You always had people to call to fill out a bill," Johnson says.

The Retainers recorded their full-length album Off And On with Justin Bernard and released the CD on Stunning Tonto, an important factor for the band even if didn't translate to a lot of practical help. "We were really branding ourselves to be a part of the community," Johnson says.

Unlike a regional music scene that coalesces around a particular sound—for example, the grunge era in Seattle—the Stunning Tonto bands had no distinct sound in common.

"None of us sounded the same. Everybody played different kinds of stuff. That much diversity in such a small city, I just thought it was so weird," says Lloyd Dobler's Bowen.

"That was the most interesting aspect," says Don Jennings, who hosted the Monday night Locals Only show on KXCI from 1998 to 2008. "It was almost like anybody and everybody. The label just embraced a lot of different styles."

Jennings says he didn't begin to think of Stunning Tonto as a family of bands until the label released its compilation, putting all 16 bands onstage at Club Congress on Dec. 12 and 13, 2002. The eclectic disc also brought in hip-hop (Mankind), dense electro-rock (The Beating), hardcore (Gat-Rot) and heavy riff rock (Love Mound).

"The unifying factor for the compilation and for the bands was everybody was out supporting everybody. You could go to a show of one of the bands on the comp and you could see people from just about every other band," Jennings says. "Nobody cared individually about being a success, but they all wanted the scene to thrive."

The compilation came about as a way to document the scene, but it also became a catalyst, helping the bands that played on a regular basis reach a wider audience. Stunning Tonto itself attracted even more bands, releasing albums by the Demon City Wreckers and Innisfail, who weren't on the comp.

"There was a diversity in the type of music, but a shared solidarity for the community and an appreciation of music. I don't think Tucson had been a place where all the bars were filled with live music and all the bands liked each other," says Dan Hernandez, a music promoter and Optimist Club DJ. "The record itself wasn't transformative, but it's a good encapsulation of how the scene itself was being transformed. It's a good record in both senses of the word."

Chango Malo went on six tours, typically staying on the road six to eight weeks. At one point, the band limped through a Northwest tour in an all-but-totaled van. The devotion looked as though it would pay off, with contact from three major record labels: Atlantic, Universal and Lava. The band sent in demos, never heard back and continued just as they always had.

"We wanted to be with the ranks of people who did it well. The idea of making money was never in there. We wanted to make something that we were proud of and that the people around us like," Davidson says.

There was no day off for Chango Malo. The band members assigned everybody tasks after practices. Whoever had a day free of work or school took shifts on the phone, contacting clubs around the country, using the name of fictional band manager Randy Blokes for added credibility.

"Everybody was all in, with no outside agendas," Clark says. "It helps believing you're going to conquer the world. Not just wanting to, but believing it 100 percent."

One major blow came when the band lost Matt Moore, a longtime friend who was the band's sounding board and source of "why not?" inspiration. Chango Malo played a packed Club Congress show on May 30, 2003. Moore collapsed in the club after the show and died hours later. With a show in Nogales, Sonora, already booked for the next day, the band knew Moore would want them to play on and they did.

"Honestly, when Matt passed, I think Stunning Tonto got stronger in his memory," Philabaum says. "For a while, the passion we had was so inflamed by our sadness and the hurt of him being gone out of our lives. Every day we thought about Matt and did everything for Matt."

Dedication and dreams ultimately ran into the realities of life. Most Stunning Tonto bands split up long before Chango Malo, which went on to release two full-length albums: 2003's Alas Poor Lucy and 2007's The Whiskey Years. Handing the torch to the next generation of local bands like the Swim, Mostly Bears and Holy Rolling Empire, Chango Malo performed for the last time on Feb. 28, 2009, though nobody knew it was their last show at the time.

"The desperation had started to set in," says Clark, who points to that night as his favorite of the band's 200-plus shows. "That was our heart and soul on a platter. Take it or leave it."

"I know bands that do not have as much energy and tenacity as Chango Malo who tour the country and world. I don't see in their success as much commitment and passion as I saw in Chango Malo," says Chita of KLPX. "That was the biggest attraction to working with them. They'd just go for it. They legitimately went out and hustled. They didn't kick back and say 'My band's awesome. Come see me.'

"It's lucky they came together. Their personalities are so infectious that when you put them together you can't mess with that force. That's the essence of what it takes to make a following."

Realizing that the 10-year anniversary of the Stunning Tonto compilation was nearing, Reidy, Davidson and Philabaum brainstormed a new project, with the current bands picking songs to cover from the original bands. Raising $4,020 through Kickstarter, Stunning Tonto Forever seeks to revive and celebrate not only the music, but also the friendships that defined the label.

"Stunning Tonto didn't have to be this one thing. All that it wanted to be was a buoy, a beacon," Reidy says. "The people involved just wanted everybody to get as much exposure and to have as much fun and to be involved and to do it together. It was a brotherhood. For me to come out here and fall backwards into the best friends I ever had in my life, I would've done whatever they asked me as far as promoting it."

The current bands—including Church Key, HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS, Anakim and the notorious Pangs—recorded an eight-song album with Fernando Rivas at OG7 Studios. Stunning Tonto Forever, a celebration of then, now and everybody, kicks off at 9 p.m., Friday, Feb. 8, at Plush.

"It's hard not to romanticize the whole thing because it seemed like there was no doubt in my mind it was going to blow up and then all of a sudden, Tucson bands would be around the world," Lillie says.