Dan Wanush is best known as King Scratchie, the twisted, hard-rapping frontman for the sadly defunct Warlock Pinchers. But although Wanush still loves the fusion of hardcore, funk and hip-hop that the Pinchers brought to Denver during the late Eighties and early Nineties, he admits that he's harbored a secret fondness for pop music ever since traveling to the Dominican Republic as an exchange student in 1985. "I wasn't around my friends, so I could go off on my own without worrying about peer pressure," he says. "I went to the discos and listened to merengue, to Madonna and all the other pop of the time. Back in Denver, I would have been scorned for that. When I came back, I had to hide my Madonna records in the closet. But now, finally, I've said, 'Okay, that's it. No more hiding.'"
The Wild Canadians, Wanush's current outfit, isn't a tribute to the Material Girl, but it does nod toward styles that aren't indie-hip. "The band is a lot quieter than Warlock Pinchers," he notes. "It's a mix of reggae, rock and roll and country, and underneath it all is a bubblegum pop base. I still do some rapping, but this time around, I actually sing, especially on the choruses. I keep coming up with these hooks, and they have to be sung, so I do it. I'm not a great singer, but I don't embarrass myself."
Embarrassment has never worried Wanush too much: His insane antics were as key to the Warlock Pinchers as was the cutting-edge technology deployed by cohort Mark Brooks. The pair met while attending Littleton's Heritage High, a school that's spawned a slew of other intriguing performers, including Sympathy F's Elizabeth Rose and South Park co-creator Matt Stone. The Pinchers concept bubbled up one mid-Eighties day when Wanush and Brooks were working at Piccolo's restaurant. "I was playing a tape by Whodini in the dish room when Mark came back and said, 'We should start a rap band!'" Wanush remembers. "We were just joking around."
Even after Wanush and Brooks left Littleton for Boulder, where both were slated to attend the University of Colorado, and added two new members, Eric Erickson and fellow Littleton resident Andrew Novick, they didn't take the group very seriously. "Mark's aim was to open up for local hardcore bands," Wanush says. "But it just got out of hand from there."
He's right. The Pinchers quickly made waves with a uniquely aggressive approach that picked up where the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers left off. In contrast to vocalists for the country-rock and hippie acts then dominating the Colorado scene, Wanush was unashamedly theatrical and exceedingly cool. With his help, the Pinchers gave the Denver scene a good shaking, and for that, the young rebels of the time were eternally grateful.
The Pinchers subsequently signed a record contract with San Francisco's Boner Records. Wanush credits members of Steel Pole Bathtub for helping them land the agreement. "They were living in Littleton for a while, and Mark knew them," Wanush says. "They liked what we were doing, so they hassled their label until we got signed." But there would not be a happy ending for the group. After maintaining a steady diet of recording and touring for several years, the quartet's internal chemistry fizzled, and the Pinchers disbanded in 1992.
"We all realized at the same time that we didn't want to do it anymore," Wanush points out. "We had a meeting and decided to do our last show at the Gothic in February. That was a really fun show, and we all had a good time. And we finally made money--on the very last gig."
The Pinchers' demise didn't put an end to the creative partnership of Wanush and Brooks--at least not right away. But after a year spent working together on a sampling-based venture, a break finally occurred. "Both Mark and I were going through different states of depression," Wanush says. "When we tried to record, I hated the sound of my own voice." For two years after the divorce, he continues, "I didn't do anything. I didn't write, and I didn't even want to be in a band." That changed temporarily in 1995, when Wanush and Brooks resurrected their post-Pinchers project under the techno-era moniker Space Mountain Sound System. But when Brooks moved to Los Angeles in 1997 in order to serve as the art director of Los Angeles New Times (a sister paper of Westword), the Sound System shut down, apparently for good.
Fortunately, Wanush had some musical options. In 1995 he was befriended by members of Vivid Imagination, a local combo whose crash pad was across the street from the liquor store where Wanush worked. Because the players were big fans of the Pinchers and the Sound System, they asked Wanush to join them for a couple of songs during a gig at the Lion's Lair. "I just had the greatest time," Wanush recalls. "I had fun being on stage again, and I thought I'd never feel that way again."
Two years later Vivid Imagination mates Levi Miller and Ben Williams, on guitar and bass, respectively, joined Wanush in the Wild Canadians. The group, whose current lineup also includes drummer Jed Kopp and keyboardist Bobby Waugh, began with a repertoire of two numbers Wanush originally penned for Space Mountain Sound System, but its songbook is growing. The self-deprecating Wanush is low-key about his contributions to the catalogue. "I only do what I can do. As for the tunes, I write the lyrics and I help arrange the songs. I can't write music."
Despite the passing years, Wanush hasn't lost his knack for showmanship. His new stage handle, Rey Legendario Jr., is a sequel of sorts to King Scratchie: The name means "legendary king" in Spanish. "I was going by Legendary for a while, but I decided I liked the Spanish version of the name," he says. "Good name for a guy in a band called Wild Canadians. Plus, it reminds me of my favorite wrestler, Ray Mysterio Jr., the masked Mexican wrestler of the WCW. He's only 140 pounds and five-feet-four. He wins by flying around the ring." Wanush's taste for pop culture also extends to former Spice Girl Ginger Spice. "I think Ginger had all the talent and all the cleavage--which could be the same thing as talent when you're talking about the Spice Girls."
The Cherry Bomb Club, another band to which Wanush contributes, goes to places the Spice Girls have never dared to travel. Founded by former Foreskin 500 bassist Dave Moore and featuring part-time Foreskin soul woman Erica Brown, the Club is an electronic dance band that gives Wanush another outlet for his singular delivery and infamous wit. "Erica's the diva belting out the pop goodness," Wanush enthuses. "Then there's me doing my sexy-boy raps. It's the diva and the dirtbag, pretty much." He says that most of the lyrics he writes for the Club "start as raps, because that's the way that I began singing with Warlock Pinchers. Now I'm focusing on straightforward melodies, although I use a lot of sexual innuendo on the choruses."
On this day, Wanush hardly seems capable of such ribald behavior; he's soft-spoken and taciturn, in part because he has other things on his mind. "I'm partially paralyzed in my left arm," he says. "I slept wrong, and when I woke up, my arm was asleep. The doctor said I have radial nerve palsy. They said six to eight weeks is normal recovery time, but there's no guarantee that it will ever come back." Thus far, though, he's been able to deal with the complications of his injury. "It affected my microphone hand, but I can still get a grip on it."
As the Wild Canadians prove, Wanush's musical grip is just fine, too.
The Wild Canadians. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 3, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, free, 303-744-0513.
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