This was Wookieback's last cassette, originally released in the summer of 1999 on Chattanooga, TN's Corner Room Recordings as CNRM 014.
Recorded and mixed May/June 1999 on 8-track 1/4" reel-to-reel by Brandon Buckner & John Ringhofer at Corner Room, and at John's house.
- - - - - - -
Brandon Buckner: full drum kit with sticks, percussion, piano, slide guitar, air organ, percussive flower pots, keyboard.
Matthew Vollmer: electric guitar, lead vocals, acoustic guitar, bass guitar.
John Ringhofer: acoustic guitar, lead & backing vocals, trombone, bass guitar, kazoos, air organ, 12-string electric guitar (thanks Tommy!), keyboard, glockenspiel, effects, ukulele, vocal & horn arrangements.
released June 5, 1999
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
An adapted excerpt of "The Legend of Wookieback: a Feat of Space Exploration" by Matthew Vollmer (originally published in the July 18th 2011 issue of “Barrelhouse Online.”)
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
In January of 1997, when we were twenty-two years old, my friend John Ringhofer and I sat on my bedroom floor with a pair of guitars, a Yamaha keyboard, and a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe storybook cassette, and began to write songs for what would one day become one of Chattanooga, Tennessee’s most legendary musical acts: Wookieback.
That’s not a misprint. Our band was actually named Wookieback—as in the posterior of a “wookiee,” the Sasquatch from Star Wars. (Brandon Buckner, our drummer, and John had misinterpreted an NPR radio announcer saying “We’ll get back to you” as “Wookieback to you,” and it’d stuck.) As for being legendary, I’ll admit that might be somewhat of a stretch, since it’s quite possible—if not probable—that you’ve never heard of us, even if you happen to have lived in Chattanooga during the late nineties, which, for some people, namely the members of our band, was otherwise known as “Wookieback heyday.” It’s true that we didn’t rock harder than anyone else. We didn’t have tee shirts. We weren’t playing more shows or getting more songs on the radio than any other Chattanooga band. We weren’t even generating more buzz.
By the time we were done, though, we’d built a legacy. Using guitar, bass, drums, samples, xylophones, vintage keyboards, trombones, and a bunch of other random instruments, we’d penned songs about subjects as diverse as E.T., Han Solo, Flash Gordon, and Rolda (Yoda’s twin brother in a wheelchair). We’d sung verses that included lines like “you might be bigger than me/ but I’m made out of plastic” and “Earthling, you da bomb.” We’d rhymed “jettison” with “Jedi’s son.” We’d made noteworthy observations—“Wonder Twin power activation depends upon the knuckle introduction”—posed significant inquiries—“how can Orko move around without any legs?”—expressed disbelief—“I can’t believe it’s true/ humans used for computer food!”—and articulated earnest supplications —“please don’t take me to the moon, I’m here to save the earth.” And, once the golden age of Wookieback had ended (only three short years after it began), we’d composed fifty-some songs, the entire catalog of which we could burn through in less than three quarters of an hour.
The night we began writing songs for Wookieback, John had come to visit me at my parents’ house in Andrews, North Carolina, and we were staying up late listening to songs and playing guitar. At some point, he presented me with a battered storybook cassette, which bore the familiar logo of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the mystical muscleman from another planet who battles evil hordes with the help of a talking saber-toothed cat and a floating elflike creature who can’t quite master his magic spells.
John covered the square holes at the top edge with two strips of tape (thus making it recordable again—a tactic he’d used when turning forgettable cassingles by bands like Color Me Badd into mix tapes), slid the cassette into the deck and hit play. We listened to five or six seconds of the story; John hit the stop button. Our goal, he explained, would be to write a short song based on what we’d heard, then record that song over the story tape. Once we’d finished recording, we’d hit stop, then hit play again, listen to whatever line of dialogue or narration arrived next, hit stop, and then record another song inspired by the next couple of lines or sound effects—regardless of how nonsensical or downright stupid.
If writing songs based on He-Man sounds silly and infantile, believe me, it was. It also turned out—like most of Ringhofer’s ideas—to be insanely, even sublimely fun. Within a couple hours, we’d produced some shamelessly goofy crap—including some guitar/keyboard instrumentals that might’ve been appropriate background music for an episode of The Smurfs—but we’d also come up with a few catchy melodies and guitar riffs: a funky number concerning Teela (the unicorn-riding warrior goddess) working out on something called an “Attack-Track”; a faux-bluesy ballad about Skeletor, He-Man’s hooded, skull-faced enemy (which included the phrase “you’re bad to the bone”); and a triumphant anthem celebrating He-Man’s final victory over an evil spell.
And lo, the rules of Wookieback songs had been established.
First off: songs should pay tribute and/or call attention to the ridiculousness of science fiction or comic book heroes. Secondly, songs should begin, whenever possible, with a sample from a storybook tape or record, the kind of thing where a melodramatic actor (as in the case of Maximillian Schell, from Disney’s Black Hole) might whisper, “Tonight, my friends, we stand on the brink of a feat in space exploration,” which could then be followed by a flawed interpretation of that sample (thus, John’s song titled “Astronaut Shoes,” about the feet of space exploration). Lyrics should be clever or intentionally obtuse (“Don’t mind me/ I’m just a ninja at heart”), should concern conundrums such as “psychic robots” and “android emotions,” and include, when appropriate, a string of doo-doo-doo-doo’s, eww-wee-eww’s or bah-bah-bah-bah’s. Melodies should be catchy, surprising and upbeat—something The Beatles, The Beach Boys, They Might Be Giants, or a group of wholesome teens around a campfire might get a kick out of singing. Odd time signatures were okay, as were the absence of bridges or choruses. Whistled refrains? Encouraged. Kazoos? Bring ‘em on. Finally: songs should end, as often as possible, on a “skronk,” a musical exclamation point where all musicians play one hard, loud, final note.
I like to think that Wookieback’s greatest achievement—aside from the quality of our recordings (the four-track we used made our tapes sound as if parts of the song were being broadcast from Alpha Centauri)—was our efficiency. Not only did we record each of our three albums—"Proposed Moon Suit" (1997), "Robots Be One Crazy Weasel" [sic] (1998), and "Let Me Tell You About This Machine" (1999)—in only a couple days (the first album was tracked in a single session), but also, because our songs averaged between 45 and 90 seconds (the longest clocking in at a whopping 2:19), we could pack roughly 15 songs into a 20-minute tape, thus leaving our fans wanting more.
And yes. We had fans. This was sort of an accomplishment in and of itself, since we played three of our four shows at a place called Lamar’s, a hotel-soul-food-restaurant-bar on Martin Luther King Street in downtown Chattanooga, and which was run by crabby middle-aged African American men in flashy vests who seemed nonplussed by our presence but also generous in that they didn’t ask for a cut of what we charged people (we charged people!) to see us play at their venue, not that the venue was anything special, since it was rumored that you could rent rooms by the quarter hour there, and that the mattresses were infested by bed bugs, and that people’s cars sometimes got broken into outside.
Of course, none of that mattered when we were playing. Say what you will about how many tapes we sold (at least 90), those shows at Lamar’s rocked. I mean, they totally shouldn’t have, since we hardly ever practiced—immediately after our first record I moved to Raleigh to pursue a master’s degree, thus making regular practice impossible—but we played our set list faster and tighter than we had when we’d recorded. The crowd went crazy—and often. Like, on average, every 1.25 minutes. So what if we hadn’t practiced. Maybe we didn’t need to! We were Wookieback! We were fulfilling our destiny! Which was: to play live, at least four times, in front of an actual audience (sometimes opening for other dork-rock acts like The Music Tapes, Of Montreal, Danielson Famile) and to kill it every time.
Four times. That was it. I moved to Massachusetts, where I started teaching English; Brandon would eventually go to the University of Iowa to get an MFA in painting, and John moved to Berkeley, after he’d founded Half-handed Cloud, an avant-pop band that continues to make joyous, unpredictable songs with instruments like Omnichords, trombones, sound collage, and those little toy cylinders that, when you turn them over, make animal sounds: he now tours the U.S. and Europe, playing venues about the size of Lamar’s.
And Wookieback isn’t totally dead. I recently visited our MySpace site—we’ve had over 11,000 profile visits, which, even if that isn’t impressive by MySpace standards, is about 100 times the amount of tapes we sold—and saw that either Brandon or John had posted some songs from a live show. Huh, I thought. I hadn’t realized Wookieback had bootleg recordings. I clicked a play button, ready to nod my head to some raw, explosive power-pop. Raw? Yeah. Explosive? Not so much. My guitar on “Slick” sounded tinny and fragile and out of tune. And on “TV Wonder Twin Power”—one of the few songs where I’d sung lead—I could hardly hear myself over the music, which was probably okay, since it soon became clear I wasn’t on key. In between songs, the crowd was cheering, but it wasn’t going wild. One might’ve described some of the applause as obligatory. I mean, no question about it, we were full of energy. And we had definitely rocked. Maybe just not as hard as I’d remembered.
Once upon a time, two 10-year-old boys named Matthew Vollmer & John Ringhofer became best friends. They both liked Legos,
snack cakes, comic books, & riding bikes. Five years after high school, a reunited Vollmer & Ringhofer teamed up with John’s hilarious art school drummer buddy Brandon Buckner in Chattanooga & realized that maybe they’d come up with an unbeatable sci-fi pop formula: Wookieback....more