Malfunkshun: Blast from the Seattle past
In the Seattle area, before the rise of ‘grunge’ and the decade that introduced it, two brothers put their creative ideas together and started a rock ‘n’ roll band based on a mutual love of glitzy costumes and loud music. This would be the beginning of what would come to be known as ‘Love Rock’ – a concept that Andrew Wood later carried over to his band Mother Love Bone. But it all started around 1980, when Andy and his big brother Kevin formed Malfunkshun, a band many consider to be an early ‘godfather’ of the grunge era thanks in part to its inclusion on the Sub Pop label’s Deep Six compilation, along with bands like Soundgarden, Green River, Melvins and The U-Men.
Around the middle of the decade, Andrew began hanging out with a crowd that included Green River alum (and future Pearl Jam members), Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. Andy would soon leave Malfunkshun and Kevin behind and, together with Stone and Jeff, would form Mother Love Bone. Though bands like Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Nirvana and others were active, Love Bone was the band that was poised to put the burgeoning Seattle music scene on the map. Success looked imminent, but on March 19, 1990, Andrew suddenly, and tragically, succumbed to his addictions and died of a heroin overdose. And just like that, Mother Love Bone was no more.
Over the years, there have been tributes galore paid to the fallen pioneer of what became known all over the world – with the exception of Seattle itself – as the grunge scene. Andrew Wood is indeed loved for what he contributed to the world of rock music. He will always be regarded for the work that he produced. Everyone knows that Mother Love Bone is where Andrew’s creative fire was extinguished, but what many people do not know is that it was ignited with Malfunkshun.
Though Andrew broke away from the band that he and his brother started, Kevin Wood carried on and has never really stopped. There were periods of hiatus and inactivity for various reasons, but Malfunkshun has essentially lived on. Through a number of personnel changes, Kevin has continued creating and recording music since those early days with his brother. Malfunkshun appears to be one of the Seattle music scene’s best kept secrets.
Over the last couple of years, Kevin Wood has been actively reshaping his original vision. He’s even found a front man worthy of carrying on the legacy established by his late brother, in the form of L.A.-based rocker Tony West. Now, the band is armed with a solid live set comprised of select Mother Love Bone favorites and original Malfunkshun songs, both new and old. They’ve begun work on a brand new recording and have plans to spread the music and ‘Love Rock’ all over the country and then, hopefully, the world.
Recently, both Tony West and Kevin Wood spoke with Graffiti about Malfunkshun.
First up, Tony West.
Graffiti: It’s great to be able to sit down and talk about what you guys are doing to bring the music of Malfunkshun to the world. So how did you get the gig?
West: Well, Andrew Wood was pretty much my biggest influence. When I was 19 I came out to L.A., I didn’t know how to sing, and people made sure I knew it, too. I had no self confidence or anything, and I learned through Andrew Wood, Sabbath, and Jane’s Addiction. Things like that that were in my voice register and things that I connected with, of course. I’ve always been drawn to the high vocals. I was into Axl [Rose] when I was a teenager. Andrew Wood was the soundtrack for that crazy darkness in that period of my life – not only with drugs, but with toxic love and shit. It wasn’t only the soundtrack to my life at that point, but I learned to sing to those songs. For me, Mother Love Bone is the deepest connection to music. Mother Love Bone had that thing, you know?
Graffiti:?It was a bit bizarre that we got this opportunity to talk because I was just talking about Mother Love Bone with someone and began listening to those songs again, and then that very day I received word that we (Graffiti) were going to do a feature with Malfunkshun.
West: Dude, that’s how Andrew works! I used to pray on my knees and I would burn sage and say ‘please help me to help the world hear your music again. Please teach me how to sing.’ I would sing to whatever Mother Love Bone records I could get my hands on [laughs]. That went on for years. Now I’m singing in his f***ing band! I like to share that story with people who feel like there’s no hope and feel like giving up.
Graffiti:?So there’s really another story inside of this story?
West: Yeah, you know, I grew up in NYC, listening to punk rock and hardcore, a lot of thrash metal. I was never into ‘cock’ rock, though [laughs]. The point being that I only love the real shit. The Seattle thing that happened was a complete misconception with the whole ‘grunge’ thing. It was really only kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll taken back from the lame posers with the lipstick and hairspray [laughs]. I gravitated toward the real stuff and, for me, Andrew was it. When I was 17, I became friends with Mike Starr (Alice In Chains) back in 1994. He was the kind of friend that you could call and say ‘Hey! C’mon, let’s go pick up some chicks!’ He was my buddy. I would tell him not to lead in with the Alice In Chains thing because you’re gonna get hangers-on and shit like that. He’d say ‘Oh, OK,’ and then, of course, he’d do it anyway [laughs]. I love his sister and his mother, man. I loved him like a brother. When he died, we set up a show for him in L.A. I did a set of Mother Love Bone songs, and then I sang a set of Alice In Chains songs. His sister was there, and a bunch of other L.A. people were there, which isn’t always a good thing, if you know what I mean
West:?Once we did that, a video of the sets got into the hands of Kevin (Wood). A couple of years later we set up a memorial show, which is actually now a running annual thing. But after that first one, I got to meet a bunch of the Seattle-heads – the true ones. The Mother Love Bone, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden camps were there. Those guys are a tight group there. So, I met them and then was asked to sing with Malfunkshun for the next memorial show, which was this year. I flew up to Seattle and did a few different Mother Love Bone songs with Kevin.
I know Mother Love Bone like the back of my hand. For a while I sang for L.A. Guns and had to keep sheet notes and shit, because I didn’t really know many of those songs. I mean, I knew some, but never really a lot of them. It wasn’t in my heart to know them. Andrew Wood’s stuff I know because it is in my heart and they’re a part of me.
We did ‘This Is Shangri-La,’ ‘Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns’ and ‘Stardog Champion’. Then we also did ‘Junkhead’ by Alice In Chains. Afterward, people kept coming up to me – his family, his friends, even people who had never got to hear them live like that before – crying, saying how they’d never heard those songs sung live like that since. You know, I’ve got to sing those songs how they know them, dude. I can’t put my own twist on them. If you’re becoming a singer for an established band like that, you’d better sing it the way the fans know it. Well, I mean, that’s just my opinion [laughs].
Graffiti:?Yeah, a lot of times when I speak with a new singer of an already established band, they want to put their own personality into it, making it their own song.
West: Yeah, see, that’s all ego. The thing about Andrew Wood is, he did it as a channel. I want to open up and be that channel. I don’t care about looking cool or whatever. That’s the whole concept of Love Rock, and all of that. I organically have that, so I want to make this all happen as organically as possible. It wasn’t like there was an audition or anything like that. Me and Kevin became friends instantly. See, Kevin says that I was already in the band, but they had a bass player that was singing, too, which I loved because he would sing it with the makeup that Andy used to wear. I really liked that because it was giving kudos to the image and the history and stuff. It’s really important for the fans. I was just going to do the Mother Love Bone songs and the more known songs, and then leave the more obscure songs to him and the rest of the band.
Graffiti: Now you’re a part of this thing that you, yourself, were completely influenced by.
West: Let me tell you about this … this was probably the most pivotal time in my life – next to my kids being born. This is when my career began. I was doing a sound check with Kevin and his mother was there in the room. I was frazzled, so I had to close my eyes and tell myself that none of this shit was happening, I was in the rehearsal studio with my idol’s brother playing guitar, my idol’s mother is watching, I had to calm myself down real quick. Kind of like a Jedi mind trick, or some quick dose of therapy on myself really quick [laughs]. After the check was done, they did four or five songs with the bass player singing, and then I came on. Immediately some guy, some hater, yells out, ‘Who the f*ck is that guy?’ I pointed at him and said, ‘You’ll find out who I am in a second’. So I called out ‘Jezebel Woman’ or some shit. Then we went into another three or four songs, and people were going nuts. I answered his question at the first opportunity I had. I said, ‘Who I am is a person who was changed by Andrew Wood. His music saved my life. That’s who I am.’
I didn’t even say my name, because it was irrelevant. That music is the essence of who I am. It was great because I had prayed on the side of the stage before I went on. I said, ‘Please use me as your channel. Please don’t let me make this about myself, but let me deliver these songs the way that your family and friends and fans all know them.’ And you know what? I really don’t even give myself credit for doing that show because it was like I was on a cloud and it wasn’t really me doing those songs but that energy was flowing through me. I was the channel! That’s pretty much how it went. You know, as I was leaving that first gig, I was telling my crew guy that when I die, that moment is going to be going through my head.
Graffiti: Then that night was meant to be, for you.
West: Dude, listen to this – I look for the signs, and this was one of them. We were leaving Seattle, in the airport, and we’re walking to the gate. I tell everyone to stop. I say, ‘Do you hear that? Listen.’ They were like, ‘What?’ I told them to just listen for a second. Through the Seattle airport’s sound system, on the radio, of the billions of songs that could’ve been playing in that moment, it was ‘Stardog Champion’.
Graffiti: How has the experience been for you? How do you feel in all of this now? Where is Malfunkshun heading now?
West: You know, it’s just a beautiful thing. I’ve been so accepted by the fans and the family. We’re actually going to be writing a new record. I have Andrew’s unused lyrics.
Graffiti: Are you still going to try to channel him and do it the way that you feel he would have or is this where you think that you might introduce a little bit of Tony West into Malfunkshun?
West: Well, we’re going to be using Andrew’s lyrics, but it’s up to me to come up with the melodies. You know, this all goes back to that prayer. I had nothing, and no one believed in me. I didn’t really even believe in myself, dude. The exact words were, ‘please help me to help you to have the world hear your music again.’ Here I am now. I’m using Andrew’s lyrics that he wrote. I’m singing in a band with his brother, that he was in. In a huge way, that has happened.
Graffiti: You’ve got Andrew’s personal notebooks with the very lyrics that he wrote himself. I would assume that being so in tune with what Andrew Wood put out into the world, you have an idea of how he would’ve handled the songs.
West: Yeah. I mean, if Andy would’ve actually done them, I would definitely use his melodies. See, I have the honor of creating them and, for me, it doesn’t get any better or bigger. There are no words for the way this feels.
Graffiti: What does the band have planned for you and for the rest of 2014?
West:?Oh shit, I have to learn a lot of songs [laughs]. You know, I didn’t really know about Malfunkshun at first. I hadn’t really delved into it. There were a couple of songs that I know that I’d heard but wasn’t familiar with Malfunkshun like I was with Mother Love Bone. Malfunkshun didn’t have the exposure that the other bands had. I’m sure that there are people who love Andrew Wood and love Mother Love Bone who would really love to hear Malfunkshun once they find out about the band. Anyway, I have the melodies for a few of the songs in my head right now. I just have to apply them to the songs and work them all together.
Graffiti:?Hi Kevin. It’s great to talk to you. I appreciate you taking some time to answer some questions this afternoon.
Wood: Oh man, no problem. Thank you for helping us and what we’re doing.
Graffiti: My pleasure! Let’s get into it. Tell me a little bit about how you and Tony kind of hooked up to get this whole thing going again.
Wood: Tony and I have been talking back and forth on Facebook. I was actually interested in working with him back when we had another guy. So, that’s where we connected. He actually has some family out here near where I’m at, and he was visiting so we just decided to meet in person. Malfunkshun actually played the annual tribute to Mike Starr in Seattle, where he had played also with his band Blacklist Union. We just started talking about Mike and some other things. We both thought it would be cool if he came up. I knew that he was a close friend of Mike’s, so I thought it’d be a good excuse come up and play some songs with us for the show. He came out and we did some Mother Love Bone songs, an Alice In Chains song, and it was just great. I mean, he’s a great singer and a great performer, so it just seemed like a no brainer for him to come up and us join forces. That’s pretty much all it took.
Graffiti: You said that you had already begun the Malfunkshun project at this point. Correct?
Wood: Yeah. This was just a few months ago. Malfunkshun was going strong and the singer that we had before Tony had to quit for some personal reasons – he actually had just had his tenth baby, if you can believe that. He just couldn’t commit to touring, so he had to quit. We went to the three piece for a while, which was OK, but Tony’s just such a good singer, and he adds so much depth to the feel, to have him come up and sing. Malfunkshun has actually been going on for quite a good while, amid some personnel changes, and Tony’s our new addition.
Graffiti: So let me backtrack a little. When you guys started, I know that you were young. How did you come up with the name? How did you get this whole thing started?
Wood: Well, I was just out of high school. My little brother Andy was still in school. I was working in a restaurant as a dishwasher and there was a sign above my station that said something like ‘Report Malfunction’. And at the time, it just stayed in my head and I just started making up these little posters and thinking about that as a concept for a band. When I got Andy to throw in with me on the group, which wasn’t hard [laughs], because we are both rockers to the core, he helped out by changing the lettering and he spelled it the way that you see it now. It’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek name, but it has its own weight and personality, even after all these years.
Graffiti: What kind of scene did you guys start out in? It was the early 80s, so it would’ve probably been punk in that part of the country.
Wood: Oh, yeah, it was punk. The punk bands were the people that we would play the gigs with in little rundown bars and makeshift concert venues. Sometimes we were in basements and lofts. It was a really cool scene, really organic. It was handled by the scene itself. There wasn’t a lot of support by the clubs then, although that would come later. As the scene developed, it eventually became more of a rock club thing, but it was originally really underground in the very beginning. It was cool.
Graffiti: It’s always cool when a group of people can come together as individual units and create a collective when there’s no support elsewhere.
Wood: Oh, it was very cool to be a part of. See, punk was a wide open term, and we were experimenting with a Discharge-ish, G.B.H. kind of approach. But then we also had songs that were nowhere near any kind of punk genre. They were mid-tempo and bigger. Well, you know, it was more of an underground rock scene. I mean there was definitely punk, but they really embraced us.
Graffiti: When you guys first began this whole thing, were there any musical parameters that you wanted to stay within? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to sound like or roots you wanted to keep?
Wood: Oh, absolutely. We didn’t want to be like anybody else. I mean, every now and then we would touch on something that was similar, but we did not want to do any of that metal revival stuff, with the chunka-chunka-chunka sound going on [laughs]. A lot of the guitar soloing that was going on at the time was just really monotonous sounding and it just sounded stupid to me, so I was bound and determined to carve out my own style. Even if it meant people going, ‘What in the fuck is he doing up there?’ [laughs] But that was our credo, basically. We had to be original. We had to stand out. But it ended up sounding like too much of something else, so it just didn’t happen.
Graffiti: So what happened? Did it just start to blend in with everything or did it go too far astray in one direction or another?
Wood: Well, a lot of the stuff I ended up doing, like the solos and stuff, I think wound up being a little too far left for a lot of people. But, you know, then again, it all depends on where it is that you’re coming from. I mean, it’s not uncommon for a jazz musician to play a half-step out, which is something I did a lot of. I guess I was just playing a lot of outside stuff, but even outside stuff has to come back in [laughs]. You know, it was just a growing experience in a way. At first, though, we didn’t wanna be like anybody else. We wanted to carve out our own niche with our own sound, but then people just started kind of sounding a bit like us, so it got to be the kind of thing where everybody else was doing it, too. But then, I guess that our original sound really just started to take hold.
Graffiti: When you and Andy got the band together, did you have big goals in mind? Did you want to play the big stages around the country, or the world, even?
Wood: Oh, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. You know, we had those goals. I mean, it definitely wasn’t just a hobby. That’s something that we were committed to in a big way. It was all-encompassing. Everything that we did, we did with that kind of success in mind.
Graffiti: Were you and Andy coming from the same place, musically? I know that he was a little younger, so was he maybe more into the punk thing, whereas you might’ve been more into the Led Zeppelin or that style rock point-of-view?
Wood: Oh, no. We both came from the same spot. There was a lot of stuff actually that he turned me on to. Like, in the early 70s, he started listening to KISS before I even knew who they were. He was listening to this music and I’m going, ‘What is that?’ [laughs]. But you know, it really went both ways. He might’ve been a bit younger than me, but we were definitely both on the same page musically.
Graffiti: So you mentioned that sometimes the music got to be a little much for some people. Was that a prime reason that Malfunkshun first split, or were there other things, maybe within the ranks, that might’ve facilitated the break you took?
Wood: Well, Andy was friends with Stone (Gossard) and he lived closer by, so Andy started hanging out with the guys from Green River a lot more. Andy knew those guys on a more friend-type basis and I would come over just for practice and gigs, things like that. Naturally, friends will get together and want to do things on the side. They [Andrew, Gossard, Ament and Regan Hagar] did that Lords of the Wasteland thing, which was a lot of fun. I went to see ’em and it was pretty cool. You know, one thing leads to another, and all those guys were doing things similar to what we were doing anyway. I don’t think that Green River was doing a whole lot around that time, so they just kind of gravitated in that direction. There wasn’t anything catastrophic that happened or anything. You know, they were all friends, and they just kind of all went the same direction.
Graffiti: So, after Andy began doing the Mother Love Bone thing, was there ever a time that you personally became disenfranchised with music, the industry or the direction the music you were into was taking?
Wood: No, not really, actually. I just wanted to continue on with my own musical direction. See, Malfunkshun has never really broken up, so I was still into doing that. Andy actually had a solo deal with Polygram Records, so I was helping him with the pre-production – writing songs and other things like that. Plus I had my little baby boy at the time. He was born around that time. But you know, I never really put my guitar down. I always had my fingers in some pie.
Graffiti: Do you ever feel like Malfunkshun never really got the credit that maybe should’ve been due to you guys and your contribution to the ‘scene’?
Wood: Well, I always thought we had good recognition, but we didn’t really put a lot of stuff out either. We were more of a live kind of band. We got a fair share of press, plus we were influencing people. But yeah, we didn’t really put a lot of music on record, so maybe that’s why you hear more about the other influences on that scene.
Graffiti: Let’s bring it back to 2014. What does Malfunkshun have planned for the rest of the year that you’re really amped up about?
Wood: We really do have a lot of things going on at the moment. I’m really working with Tony on getting these songs ready. There’s some pre-production work to be done. I mean, we do have a lot done, but there’s just a few things that are left to be addressed there. We’ve got probably an EP’s worth of music nearing completion. There’s a live project that I’m working on. It’s sounding pretty darn cool. You know, our live set encompasses the early Malfunkshun material you hear on ‘Back To Olympus’. We’ve got a really good Mother Love Bone tribute, because that was a part of Andy. I’d like to continue to acknowledge his contribution to music. We’ve got new material that you can find on iTunes. We’re really just showcasing Tony and getting the band ready. I’m really excited about everything that’s going on right now.
Graffiti: When can fans expect to see a full recording, with Tony’s adaptation of Andy’s lyrics, and everything together? When will there be a tangible release to enjoy?
Wood: I would say probably around the holiday season, optimistically.
Graffiti: Will Malfunkshun be hitting the road for any extensive touring anytime soon?
Wood: We are actually working on west coast booking right now. We’re all able to go out and work on the road now, so once we get the momentum in place and get things together more firmly, we’ll really be ready to go.
Graffiti: What about all the way over to the east coast?
Wood: Oh yeah. We’ll definitely be out that way.
Joey Cutler co-operates a non-genre specific music webzine called STATIKNOIZE. Visit www.statiknoize.com or “Like” on Facebook and follow on Twitter.
Erin O’Neill contributed to this story.