By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Ryan Somerville and Paul Shuirman have taught alongside each other at McNary High School for more than a decade, but it took a Joe Satriani concert to bring them together as bandmates.
“We were laughing hysterically,” said Shuirman, a math teacher. “There were all these people going nuts and he’s looking at them and playing as if he’s a god. We realized that we had a similar idea about what makes for good performances.”
Somerville was more to the pointed in his review.
“He basically has two songs and six licks that he’s run through the wringer for decades,” the English teacher said. “That’s when we discovered that we’re both equally iconoclastic. If someone needs to be chopped down a bit, we’re willing to be the ones swinging the axe – it’s just we’d rather do it musically.”
Shuirman played in bands for years after teaching himself how to play by ear as a teenager. One of his more noteworthy gigs was playing at Los Angeles’ Whiskey a Go Go in the heyday of Sunset Boulevard. Somerville taught himself to play as a teen by poring over guitar magazines, but had never played in public until last year when the band Wire Monkey Mama debuted at Salem’s The Governor’s Cup.
The founding of what would become Wire Monkey Mama was relatively innocent.
Shuirman sent Somerville a list of possible song titles, Somerville picked one out and wrote a poem while the pair sat in Somerville’s room after school. He sent the nascent lyrics to Shuirman who excised some of the words, rearranged others and created a demo tape.
Those first steps gave birth to what’s become their creative process.
“It was really organic after that first time. We just started sending stuff back and forth via Facebook,” Shuirman said.
It’s now something like a well-oiled machine:
Step 1. Shuirman comes up with a list of potentially hilarious song titles.
Step 2. Somerville picks one out, say Freddy’s Phoenix Freakout, inserts “Fabulous” between “Freddy’s” and “Phoenix” and then starts writing a poem about a guy named Freddy who checks into a Best Western in Phoenix, proceeds to fill the pool with shampoo and gets institutionalized.
“But Freddy’s going to be okay. That’s the whole point,” said Somerville.
Step 3. Shuirman gets the lyrics, gives them a pinch and twist and sets them to music, sometimes with his son providing backing vocals.
“My only rule for Ryan is that he can’t give me melodies to work from,” Shuirman said.
Step 4. Somerville gets the song back, grieves for the shattered brilliance of his wordcrafting and then comes to grips with it having evolved into a better song.
Step 5. The pair gets together with drummer Eric Bruce to flesh out the musical components.
Somerville said it works because both of them are at a point where they are willing to give over some of the creative control in the process, and because both of them approach it with an all-or-nothing sense of humor.
In the midst of conversation, Somerville will whip out his phone and start typing lyrics or song titles. In the course of the interview, this happens at least four times. The pair gets into a joking argument about the musical merits of Ted Nugent and soon Somerville is typing Wango Tango Suite into his phone.
“We’re going to redo Wango Tango, and get it right this time,” he said.
Somerville wrote a song titled Quinoa after he found an article on Buzzfeed about it being the top name for babies of hipsters. The pair is now trying to enlist friends and offspring to dress up as boxes of quinoa at Wire Monkey Mama’s Keizer debut Saturday, May 7, at Keizer Village Shopping Center. The group is performing at 11:30 a.m. as part of the festivities surrounding Free Comic Book Day at Tony’s Kingdom of Comics.
“For me, what’s fun is seeing some of Ryan’s ideas for a song and thinking, ‘That is so stupid.’ Then I realize that’s why I have to go with it. It’s the challenge of taking something like that and turning it into something cool,” Shuirman said.
Despite his math proclivities, Shuirman approaches performing with the mindset of a sociologist. He’s just as interested in the interplay between performer and audience as he is the music.
“There’s a challenge in playing in front of a new group, I’d rather do that than play in front of a bunch of friends who won’t tell me I suck,” he said.
It might seem like they’re trying to play a joke on the audience, but Somerville and Shuirman are hoping the audience sees it more as an invitation.
“I figured 49 years old wasn’t too late to start a punk band – better late than never. I love it, my students love the idea of it. I have no delusions of being a polished performer, but we are seriously trying to create good songs,” Somerville said. “We just want people to come and have fun. Laugh with us or laugh at us, but have fun.”
Why Wire Monkey Mama?
One of Ryan Somerville’s hobbies, in addition to writing and making music, is coming up with band names.
The Seven Deadly Sinatras is one of his personal favorites, but Wire Monkey Mama is one he’s been kicking around for several years.
“Our eponymous song is Don’t Be a Wire Monkey Mama,” said Somerville.
The name comes from a series of experiments conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1950s. Harlow put rhesus macaques that had been raised in isolation into cages with one “mother” made of wire and another made of cloth to see which the macaques would gravitate to.
Even when the wire monkey mamas were placed in the cages with food bottle and the cloth mothers had none, the macaques preferred the cloth mothers.
“The conclusion he made was that primates sought comfort even more than food,” Somerville said.
Despite the somewhat endearing tale, Somerville embraced chilliness of the wire monkey concept when naming the band.
“Essentially, we’re the cold, heartless maternal figures that only offer you gruel and tell you to shut up,” he said.