The W's circa 1998
|Origin||Corvallis, Oregon, USA|
Swing / Swing revival
|Labels||Five Minute Walk|
|Past members||Andrew Schar
The W's were a Christian ska and swing revival band, formed in Corvallis, Oregon in 1996. Success came quickly to the band and their first album, Fourth from the Last, was a sleeper hit unexpectedly having had the strongest debut of any Christian album to date for its distributor. They toured the United States several times with a variety of artists. Touring highlights include Pope John Paul II's 1999 visit to St. Louis and dc Talk's Supernatural support tour.
Their mix of "swing pop" and ska was uncommon in the Christian music industry. They were more popular within Christian music than their neo-swing counterparts such as the Squirrel Nut Zippers or The Brian Setzer Orchestra were in the general market. Their songwriting was known for its irreverence and frivolity, and for its reflections of the band's faith. Before breaking up in 2000, the group had released two albums, topped Christian rock radio and sales charts, and won two Gospel Music Association awards.
The W's formed as a ska band at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon in 1996. The original lineup consisted of Andrew Schar (Lead vocals, Guitar), Valentine Hellman (Tenor sax, Clarinet), Todd "The Rodd" Gruener (Bass), and a fourth member, Zak Shultz (drums). All were attending Oregon State and mutual residents of Avery Lodge. The band was originally spearheaded and envisioned by Shultz, but he eventually moved to Seattle, Washington to work for Brandon Ebel with Tooth & Nail Records. By September 1997 Shultz had left, and the group had been joined by Bret Barker (Trumpet), who Schar met through Campus Crusade for Christ, and James Carter (Alto sax, background vocals). Peter Kelly drummed for a short stint during the summer and fall of 1997, but broke his arm in a freak skate-boarding accident only a few days before first recording with Five Minute Walk. The band then recruited Brian Morris to replace Kelly from a local punk band.
The W's discovered a break when a mutual friend from Eugene, Aaron James (employed at the time by Five Minute Walk Records), offered them the spot opening for Five Iron Frenzy in Concord, California. Following the CD release party for Five Iron Frenzy's Our Newest Album Ever! in November 1997, they signed with Frank Tate's Five Minute Walk Records. Within a year they had produced their first album, Fourth From the Last. The album was extremely well timed, being released at a time when neo-swing was extremely hot in the general market. In its opening week it sold almost 9,000 units, representing over half of the total stock that had been manufactured. This was the highest selling band-debut to date of any album for Five Minute Walks' distributor, Chordant. This also placed Fourth at the No. 4 spot on both Billboard's "Heatseekers" and "Top Contemporary Christian" charts.
Despite being pulled from the shelves of LifeWay Christian Resources stores for containing "indecent" words The W's sold 31,000+ copies within five weeks, and eventually over 200,000 units, peaking at No. 147 on "The Billboard 200". Fourth From the Last received the Dove Award for "Modern Rock Album of the Year" in 1999. "The Devil Is Bad" was The W's hit single from the record. It peaked at No. 1 and No. 6 on the Christian rock and hits radio and charts respectively, and won the Dove for "Modern Rock Recorded Song" in 1999. The song was also released on the double Platinum certified annual compilation WOW 1999.
In late 1998 the band appeared on the cover of 7ball magazine (pictured left), representing the widest media coverage the band garnered throughout their career. The cover reflects the visual signature of the band at the time. Fourth From the Last was themed around bowling, a sport which band member had mixed feelings about. At least one member (Todd Gruener) was said to hate the sport, while Andrew Schar had played in a league. Closing out 1998, the band played some dates with one of their mainstream counterparts - Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and alternative band Cracker.
The year 1999 brought continual touring and the release of a second album. They played at Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis in January. From late that month until May the band opened for Christian rock heavyweight dc Talk on their 65 city "Supernatural Experience" tour. During this time the "Moses" entered Christian radio as a second single and peaked at No. 3 on the Christian rock radio charts. That May the band went into the studio to record their second and final album, Trouble With X. Summer brought further touring and appearances at Christian music festivals. That fall the band embarked on the national "Holy Roller Tour" with The Insyderz, Five Iron Frenzy, and Justin McRoberts. Shows on this tour were held at roller skating rinks across the country.
In November Trouble With X was released. This album was not as successful critically or in retail, peaking at No. 21 and No. 25 on the Billboard "Heatseekers" and "Top Contemporary Christian" charts respectively. Like many bands of the "swing revival" movement, The W's were caught in the mass exodus of popularity from the genre. Some copies of Trouble With X included "The Rumor Weed Song", which was made for the episode Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed of the children’s video series VeggieTales. The song was also included on the WOW 2000 compilation, which also achieved double Platinum sales.
Touring continued in 2000 alongside labelmates Five Iron Frenzy, Philmore, and Soul-Junk. Drummer Brian Morris departed and was replaced by Courtney Stubbert. The W's commenced recording for a third album, though it was never released. The album was to feature Glen Galaxy of Soul-Junk, and was said to be "a bold new step" for the band. One song from the sessions, "Somewhere Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea" was released on the compilation Take Time To Listen Volume 5. The W's broke up in December 2000, citing "artistic differences."
After the break-up
Some members continued to produce music following the demise of The W's. Gruener and Morris joined Corvallis friend Mark Cleaver in the indie band Bendixon. Bendixon released two albums, Bendixon (1999) and Slaying Of The Dragon (2000). Their sound was comparable to Weezer or All Star United, and like The W's most of their songs could be considered fun or witty. Schar and Stubbert formed the band Alpha Charlie and released one album, ...and I wait (2002), before breaking up in 2004. Early member Shultz eventually relocated to Los Angeles, California in 1997 and is involved with the local music scene there.
Bret Barker and Valentine Hellman continued to collaborate with Five Iron Frenzy. They both appeared on Five Iron Frenzy's 2000 album All the Hype That Money Can Buy. Barker additionally appeared on Dennis Culp's solo effort Ascents (2000), Five Iron Frenzy 2: Electric Boogaloo (2001) in both the additional musician credits and as a recording engineer, and as an engineer on The End Is Near (2003). Barker joined The O.C. Supertones in 2004 and played with them until their breakup the following year.
The Big Fix
In August 2012 Andrew Schar hit the music scene once again. With the announcement of a new band, release of their first track, and a promise of more music to come "The Big Fix" released "Dead Wrong (Wronged)" on August 15, 2012.
Sample from The W's "The Devil Is Bad".
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The music of The W's is similar to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, or The O.C. Supertones, but less ska-based than the latter. HM Magazine commented that "the closest thing in the Christian market was Ralph Carmichael's big band project" (Strike Up The Band, 1995). Though they were often cited as third wave ska or swing revival, their overall sound did not fit neatly into any musical genre. Band members generally agreed with this assessment: Andrew Schar noted that "Our music gets labeled swing, but we're not really swing", and Sax player James Carter, "I think 'swing' and 'ska' are just terms people are comfortable using. I don't think they completely describe the music we play at all". Bass player Gruener described their music as "kinda ska, kinda swing, kinda rockabilly, kinda crazy, kinda punky". Cross Rhythms provides the most concise explanation: "This is Swing Ska!".
Reviewers, who noted a lack of depth in songwriting, regarded both of The W’s albums as "fun". CCM reported that lyrically, their songs "swing between subtle spirituality and general goofness." Elsewhere this style was described as "an odd marriage of reverence for God with forced attempts at irreverent wackiness." While the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music cites this as a "subdued approach to ministry", other commentators saw it as a disappointing lack of spiritual message, especially on Trouble With X.
Ironically, Trouble was much more themed on Christianity than their debut, although its nature was philosophical rather than spiritual. Characterized by James Carter, "The last album, we wrote about our everyday lives... the majority of the songs were about skateboarding and stories we made up. This album, pretty much every song is about Christianity." The band leveled criticism at the church and Christians generally, sometimes using sarcasm, reminding one reviewer of Steve Taylor. "Tip From Me" is about breaking broad perceptions of Christianity and the Church. The purpose of the song was to acknowledge problems with the church, say to the non-Christian that "Yeah, we see the problems too," and a call to the Christian to act to fix them. In the song "Stupid" the band used the example of abortion clinic bombings (see, for example Eric Robert Rudolph) to make a pronounced statement about hypocrisy.
Several songs draw directly from biblical stories. The song "Moses" is about struggles with faith and insignificance. It draws inspiration from several biblical figures and stories, including Moses' Burning bush, Gideon, Peter's denial of Christ, and Pauls role in the death of Stephen to show how God can use anybody for his purposes. "The Devil Is Bad" draws upon the story of the The Fall of Man and the Temptation of Christ as examples to encourage resistance to sin. "Used Car Salesman" paints a colorful description of the Devil, selling sins as used Hondas.
Other songs, such as "Dexter", and "Frank" retell parts of the lives of band members. "J.P." tells about how a friend of Valentine Hellman encouraged him to leave the party scene and rededicate his life to Christ. "Hui" retells the 1987 film North Shore. More mundane topics include the hardships of school ("101") and of touring and making music professionally ("Two More Weeks", "Open Minded"). Another notable song was their cover of John Denver's "Country Roads", which some thought worked well as a swing tune.
- 1998: The Echoing Green / The W's Split EP
- 1998: Take Time to Listen Volume IV (Five Minute Walk)
- Contains "Pup" and "Moses."
- 1999: WOW 1999 (EMI CMG)
- Contains "The Devil Is Bad."
- 2000: Take Time to Listen Volume 5.0 (Five Minute Walk)
- Contains "Somewhere Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea", from an unreleased album.
- 2000: WOW 2000 (EMI CMG)
- Contains "The Rumor Weed Song."
Notes and references
- McGovern, Brian Vincent (November/December 1998). "Album Reviews: THE W's Fourth From the Last". HM Magazine (74). ISSN 1066-6923. Archived from the original on 2001-02-22. Retrieved 2007-04-24.
- Powell, Mark Allan (2002). "The W's". Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (First printing ed.). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. pp. 1008–1009. ISBN 1-56563-679-1.
- Huey, Steve. "((( Trouble with X > Overview )))". Allmusic. Retrieved 2007-03-02.
- "Todd Gruener Interview". Jesus Freak Hideout. 1999-04-20. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- "Interview with the W's". 1998-09-30. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- "Christian swingers". The Tampa Tribune. 1999-02-27. p. 4. ISSN 1042-3761.
- Kelly stayed in Philomath, Oregon, got married and became a successful youth leader and social visionary.
- Walker, Derek (November / December 1998). "It's A Swing Thing". 7ball (21): 26–30. ISSN 1082-3980.
- Hendrickson, Lucas W. (January 1999). "W's Good, Devil Bad" (reprint). CCM Magazine 21 (7): 34. ISSN 1524-7848. Retrieved 2007-02-05.
- "Music Reviews And News". CBA Marketplace 31 (10): 66–67. October 1998. ISSN 1092-7239. OCLC 36184061.
- Baldwin, Steven Stuart; Stonehocker, Linda T. (1998). "Fourth from the Last Review". The Phantom Tollbooth. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- "The W's > Charts & Awards > Billboard Albums". Allmusic. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- "The W's Biography". Christianity Today (courtesy of Five Minute Walk Records). Archived from the original on 2007-02-16. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- "Dove Award Recipients for 1999". Gospel Music Association. Archived from the original on 2006-10-20. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- CCM Update. OCLC 22937802. Issues June 20 – September 21, 1998.
- Mount, Daniel J. (2005). A City on a Hilltop? The History of Contemporary Christian Music. p. 293. Retrieved 2007-02-12.
- Cockroft, Martin (September/October 1999). "Back to Faith". Campus Life 58 (2): 26. ISSN 0008-2538. Retrieved 2007-04-30.
- "Channel 7 News". 7ball (22): 14. January / February 1999. ISSN 1082-3980.
- Newcomb, Brian Quincy (April 1999). "Pope Visits St. Louis". CCM Magazine 21 (10): 12–13. ISSN 1524-7848. Note: They played to crowds outside the main venue.
- "Supernatural Experience Tour Dates" from dctalk.com, now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived November 10, 2000 at the Wayback Machine
- "The W's: Tour Schedule", now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived May 23, 2000 at the Wayback Machine
- Holy Roller Tour handbill. Retrieved November 15, 2006.
- Five Iron Frenzy (2006). "Five Iron Frenzy Gigography". Five Minute Walk. Archived from the original on 2006-07-07. Retrieved 2007-07-11..
- Gordon (a girl called) (January/February 2000). "Album Reviews: THE W'S, Trouble with X". HM Magazine (81). ISSN 1066-6923. Archived from the original on 2001-03-08. Retrieved 2007-04-24.
- "News / Modern Rock". 7ball (34): 16. January / February 2001. ISSN 1082-3980.
- Take Time To Listen Volume 5 (liner). Concord, California: Five Minute Walk. 2000. FMD2402.
- "The W's Music". Retrieved November 15, 2006.
- Thews.org, now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived November 30, 2002 at the Wayback Machine
- Thews.org, now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived February 2, 2001 at the Wayback Machine
- Bendixon Biography. Now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived March 1, 2001 at the Wayback Machine
- "Bendixon Profile". Cross Rhythms. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- "((( Slaying of the Dragon > Overview )))". Allmusic. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- Powell, Mark Allan (2002). "Bendixon". Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music. p. 78.
- The W's News, formerly hosted at nerdmusic.com. Now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived February 12, 2002 at the Wayback Machine
- Alpha-charlie.com, now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived December 12, 2004 at the Wayback Machine
- "Zak Shultz Biography", from Stairwell.net. Now hosted at the Internet Archive. Archived February 24, 2003 at the Wayback Machine
- Smith, Jim. "((( Fourth from the Last > Overview )))". Allmusic. Retrieved 2007-03-02.
- Hogan-Albach, Susan (1998-09-05). "Otherworldly unplugged; Christian band The W's swings with wit, whimsy". Star Tribune. p. 09B.
- Jensen, Cathy (1999). "Interview With James Carter". Decapolis. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- Rimmer, Mike (October 1998). "The W's Fourth From the Last". Cross Rhythms (47).
- Walker, Derek (July / August 1998). "Bridging the Gap: The W's have a swingn' sound for fans of all kinds". 7ball (19): 42. ISSN 1082-3980.
- Urbanski, David (September 1998). "Reviews". CCM Magazine 21 (3): 54. ISSN 1524-7848.
- DiBiase, John (1999-10-24). "Trouble With X Review". Jesus Freak Hideout. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- Stewart, James; Marihugh, Josh (2000). "Trouble With X Review". The Phantom Tollbooth. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- Martin, Rachel L. (January/February 2000). "Holy Rollin'". 7ball (28). Archived from the original on 2002-06-16. Retrieved 2007-05-14.
- Kevin H. (1999-10-16). "The W's Trouble With X". Real Magazine. Retrieved 2007-03-02.