I meet The Viewmasters at Pizzeria Luigi in Golden Hill after they finish one of their final practice sessions at nearby Black Box Studios. It's a “Last Supper” of sorts for a San Diego band that's nearing the end after six tumultuous years.
Amanda Suter (vocals), Aaron Hester (sax/vocals), Siavash Ghamaty (guitar), Derick Hugunin (multi-instrumentalist) and Richard “T-Bone” Larson (drums) share their stories about writing, recording and performing music together.
There are cautionary tales about madmen with “moments of brilliance” (as Hugunin says) and wistful remembrances that really don't lead anywhere but into other stories.
I began by asking a safe question about how the band first got together. I expect a straightforward answer. Instead, a torrent of anachronistic asides spring forth.
There is a requisite reference to Chris Squire (the notorious San Diego musician, not the Yes bassist) and talk of the pretty scenery between San Francisco and Seattle (also known as Oregon) during long van rides. There's a Spinal Tap listing of the band's various drummers (I count at least six), followed by an interlude about panic attacks in Arcada before the conversation somehow ends up in Arizona and that time Suter conned a girl out of an artificial leg (given as a birthday present) and then rode away on a bicycle.
“That was a good time,” Suter says fondly. “Then L.A. killed it all.”
Ah, yes. That. The band was booked to play a show in late 2004 at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. But, unbeknownst to The Viewmasters, all the other bands on the bill had canceled by the time they had arrived. “No one showed up,” Hugunin recalls, “not one person except for a couple of our friends that live there—and they all wanted in for free.”
The band decided to use the opportunity as a practice session until the disgruntled owner decided to shut off the PA. “That's the thing about L.A—.” Suter trails off.
“It sucks,” Hugunin interjects.
Even though The Viewmasters limped through another four years, that L.A. show was a watershed moment, a realization that perhaps the band's aspirations had fallen short of its reality. The Viewmasters went through the cycle of success, turmoil and reconciliation more than once. There were high-flying shows when anything seemed possible and on-stage shoving matches that made the end seem inevitable. All the while, they never managed to make a decent recording.
There are reasons, sure. Machines breaking, tapes warping, conflicting schedules, arguments, rushed productions and shitty recording sessions. But the lack of tangible evidence that The Viewmasters really were a band worth listening to is perhaps their most frustrating footnote.
“It sucks that we put so much time into the band and we don't have anything to show for it,” Larson laments.
In the early days, Hester explains, the members agreed that the group's “mission statement” was to be a dance band. But melding playful lyrics with neo-soul rock and '60s rhythms was only part of the equation. They had to keep from strangling each other long enough to actually play the music.
“It's always like that: We get going and we have a good flow, we're doing shows, we have money and it's, like, ‘Let's go record,'” Hester says. “Then something happens or somebody quits or me and Amanda get in a fight.”
The internal squabbles and frequent lineup changes bred neither consistency nor confidence in what The Viewmasters were trying to accomplish with their music. The personality clashes that made the band dynamic also inevitably caused its destruction. But whatever havoc those troubles wreaked on the band's music, they only forged a tighter familial bond between its members.
“When you see the full spectrum—the good and bad in people—and you can still be friends with them, you have a longer lasting relationship,” Ghamaty says.
The statement is delivered with a mixture of warmth and resignation. And perhaps that is the legacy of The Viewmasters. Underneath a rotating cast of colorful characters, humorous vignettes and great music is a narrative about perseverance, frustration and, ultimately, managing to find strength in a story where the hero dies in the end. The Viewmasters play Saturday, Aug. 9, with The Muslims and The Sess at Tower Bar, 4757 University Ave., 619-284-0158. www.myspace.com/theviewmasters.