Interview: Gorillas are Cooking with Gas

Gorillas, Gorillas for sale: Rick Fink and his Gas House Gorillas will bring their well-oiled olio of “Jump Blues, Gypsy Swing, early Rock ‘n Roll, Cajun music and even the occasional funk groove” anywhere that’ll have them, be it a sawdust-floored saloon or a swanky society soiree. This Friday, they’re at a bowling alley.

There, we’ve said it again: these guys are a buncha apes — and their frontman is a Fink.

That said, the name Gas House Gorillas has come to stand as something of a Good Housewrecking Seal whenever and wherever the party is in peril. Their name may have been filched wholesale from a classic Bugs Bunny toon, but these gorillas in our midst — tattooed tenor Rick Fink, string strangler Dean Shot, bigmouth bassbird Jerry “The Chicken” Scaringe, quackin’ saxsmith Seltzer Jim Davis and drumthwackit guv’nor Noel Sagerman — are the very soul of integrity when it comes to rockin’ the joint in classic fashion. We’re not saying they can heal lepers or teach the blind to see or anything like that — but they have been known to transform a roomful of Cooler Than Thou clubkids into doofy dancers; turn a family-friendly funnelcake-and-facepaint festival into a funked-up fracas; set society sweet sixteens to swingin’ from the sconces, and recombobulate a rowdy roadhouse into a revved-up revival.

Of course, the 900-pound gorilla in the room that needs addressing is the fact that Fink and friends tend to put on a better, tighter, sugarshit-sharp show than many more famous acts that regularly pack the prosceniums of theatres and stadia (which probably keeps them from scoring opening gigs for said acts). Thus, just within the past couple of years and strictly around the Upper Wet Side of NJ, the band has played everywhere and everything from pocket-park freebies, deconsecrated churches and banquet-hall ballrooms to, this Friday night September the 16th, the local bowling alley.

Granted, the Asbury Lanes isn’t just any neighborhood tenpins tap house — as the Shore’s retro rec room and atom-age alterna-arts odditorium, its one-of-a-kind burlesque grind of Pop Art madness, Corny Collins musicology and Pabst/Tots legitimacy promises to provide a cozy cove for that thing the Gorillas do. Blending bontemps-steeped originals like “Hep Cat King of Everything” and “Burglar in the House of Love” with the odd (very odd) cover like “Everyone Says I Love You” (written for the Four Marx Brothers!) and the Looney Tunes staple “Powerhouse,” a Gorillas set is a heady cocktail with a surprisingly smooth ‘n sweet high note, masking a kick-ass Shot of hardstuff, mixed with effervescent Seltzer, chased with bass and ending on the hangover pound of those incessant drums drums drums…

It’s a sound beyond your puny human notions of Time and, since these mugs seem to be everywhere at once, WAY-outta-space as well. Suffice to say you hear Spike Jones, Jerry Colonna and Rosco Gordon, as well as Ted Healy-era Stooges, Weegee the Famous and Toots Shor. UpperWETside interrogated the Gas House gangleader on the eve of this weekend’s return to Asbury town (and a two-day bender at a winery, during which the band might even crawl out from under the tasting table long enough to play some music). As you’ll see, it didn’t take much to get the Fink to talk.

As the postseason firms up, the wrecking-crew lineup of The Gas House Gorillas is poised to rumba ’round the bases in a late-innings rout of partyband pretenders.

upperWETside: So settle an argument I’ve been having with myself. Where precisely are the Gas House Gorillas based out of? New York, Jersey, King of Prussia? I even read one thing that said you were from Venice Beach…
RICK FINK: I don’t know about that, but I’m based out of Brooklyn these days, so I tell ‘em we’re a New York band if anybody asks. But New Jersey’s been good to us — I grew up in Irvington, you know — and I lived in Leonardo!

Jumpin’ Jehosophat — another lead-blooded son of the Bayshore. Well, all that confusion stems from the fact that you guys cover a pretty wide patch of turf. How far afield from Flatbush have you been taking your act these days?
We’re doing well in Chicago, and in southern Ohio. We were in Philadelphia for the first time recently, if you can believe that — and we always have fun in the Midwest. We just got back from the Upper Peninsula in Michigan! It was amazing — I even did some crowd surfing. Can’t wait to go back there someday.

We’ll go anywhere, anytime — we’ve been out west as far as Las Vegas, and we’ll get to California one of these days. And we’ve been as far south as Kentucky. But you gotta do it; you can’t stay local forever.

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years ago you had this whole Swing Revival thing coming in from out west or wherever…suddenly there are these swing lounges popping up temporarily, and what seemed like dozens of Johnny Come Lately bands with fedoras. Then after the dust cleared, those guys are playing in casino showbands and you’re still standing, which suggests to me that you’re actually digging what you’re doing.
I missed that whole thing, actually — I spent a lot of the 90s as a rock singer, and I started this band around 2003, so I was one of the Johnny Come Latelys. One of our original members, Crusher, was in the Crescent City Maulers, so that lent some cred to our project. But we never considered ourselves part of that scene; I mean, people have gotten awfully dogmatic about the whole thing. We never really play specifically to dancers anyway.

When were you first exposed to this sort of jump blues, swing combo music — from a family member early on, or more or less later by accident? Was there that one magic record that really set the whole thing in motion for you?
When I was a kid I had very eclectic tastes — I listened to everything. I had an affinity for stuff like Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, Little Richard. I wanted to be a rock star of course, but I had this notion that when I reached a certain age, I’d give up rock music and start a big band. It seemed a little daunting.

It still is. These guys expect to get paid.
In this economy, I would argue that I HAVE a big band.

So anyway, you’re this recovering rock frontguy, and you’re pondering your next move, starting to conceptualize this thing that would become the Gorillas…
Well, I just got this sense that there was so much music out there that hadn’t been played for so long. I had been looking into roots music for a while, and I was digging this aspect of ‘this comes from THAT, and THAT comes from THIS’ and so on…it was the time of Napster, and I was downloading all sorts of stuff. I would download dozens of different versions of the same song to find that one definitive recording.

I guess I had the idea at first that we’d be sort of an NRBQ type band, but it kind of morphed into something else. I did know that I wanted to play music that I could get older and still play — I didn’t want to be a 40 year old punk playing to five people.

Well, you picked a championship name for your project, I must say…a little Bugs Bunny goes a long way toward setting the mood, and the Gas House Gorillas from the cartoon were some classic one-shot characters.
Absolutely. I loved that cartoon, and I had that name in the back of my mind for the longest time. I sat on it for years, holding onto it for just the right occasion, the right moment. And I actually only started the band after I lined up my first gig. Told ‘em we’d be ready to play, then went out and tried to line up some players!

That’s how they teach it in Music Business class. So how etched in stone is the whole concept of the band’s repertoire and style? Is this something you’re constantly tweaking, or is there a set of commandments as handed down by the fearless leader?
I’m still discovering other kinds of music. Anybody who comes into the band brings their influences, and it’s influenced me in turn — I even look different than I used to as a result. Our guitarist Dean Shot is an amazing blues player. Ronnie Earl, who we got to play with, told me ‘your guitar player’s an encyclopedia — he’s kickin’ my ass!’

Who have you maybe been influenced by, in ways that are maybe not readily apparent in the music?
As a performer, not necessarily in the style of our music? Peter Gabriel, David Bowie — and Freddie Mercury, my all time hero. The way he moved a crowd was like nothing else. As for other kinds of music, I listened to hip hop for a long time. This was when hair bands were all the rage in rock, so I retreated to where the truly exciting things were going on.

Any recording projects going on? A lot of bands are moving past the whole self-released CD thing anymore…they’ll finish a song at a time and post it online, and you’ll start seeing download cards at their gigs where you used to see full-length discs.
Yeah, but a CD helps keep you on the road. It’s an essential product — you want to have ‘em out on that merch table, so you can make enough to pay for gas and food.

Spoken like a gentleman of the old school! Well, the Asbury Lanes should be a good fit for your brand of musical hijinx — there’s a cartoony quality built into it already; maybe equal parts Tex Avery and Fellini.
It’ll be fun to play a bowling alley! We’ll play a thousand seat venue or a local dive bar. Open air festivals, you name it. We can play all night if we have to, but I prefer to do an hour and a half show — to us, that’s a short show. So yeah, we’re looking forward to being back in Asbury at the Lanes, and I wanna mention also that we’ll be doing two days worth of a Winefest down in Shamong in South Jersey — the Valenzano Winery, on Saturday and Sunday!

Tom Chesek-Upper Wet Side (September 11, 2011)