Music News

For Love Or Monkey

You must pay tribute," says Jason Russell, gently grasping the base of a coconut adorned with red hair and fake eyeballs, "to the monkey head."

The head in question hangs from the rafters of a northwest Denver garage, the practice space for the Orangu-Tones, a quintet bent on reliving the glory days of frat rock. Russell, the band's 27-year-old drummer, releases the imitation cranium from his hand, freeing it to momentarily bob to an imaginary beat. In its pendulous boogie, the grinning souvenir coconut is ideally cast as an idol for the monkey-fixated Orangu-Tones.

Beyond the band's Borneo-influenced name and the swaying head in the garage, the primate theme extends itself into the music that surges from the Orangu-Tones' vintage Fender amps. Besides tight, note-for-note covers of frat standards like Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," the 'Tones' originals -- which also tend not to stray very far from the sounds of the early '60s -- are more likely than not to have some sort of reference to humanity's knuckle-dragging forefathers. Exhibits A, B, and C on this trend: "Ooga Booga," "Mighty Joe Young," and "The Orangu-Twist."

Of the ape motif, Mike Molnar, the Orangu-Tones' lead guitarist (and youngest member, at 21), says, "I think there's some kind of subconscious connection between [monkeys] and what we're playing. I mean, it's kind of stupid. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to play this kind of stuff. I think the monkey theme goes a long way."

And besides, as a succinct Garrett Brittenham, the rhythm guitarist (formerly with the now-defunct Denver punk outfit Boss 302), points out, "Monkeys are cool."

But the Orangu-Tones aren't just about monkeys. They're also about beer. And chicks. And motorcycles. Above all, they're about religiously re-creating a sound and a performance philosophy that has, for the most part, gone by the wayside in the last thirty-some years. On stage, the band is a sight straight from 1962 (wearing matching blue blazers, red ties and khaki pants), five guys happily rocking their way through a set list of songs that were written before any of them were born. The bandmates all credit their bassist, Kurt Ohlen, with being the catalyst behind their frat-rock trajectory.

"I have this bad habit of liking a lot of different kinds of music and creating a band for each one," says Ohlen, a onetime Dalhart Imperial who also plays with Russell and Molnar in a country-swing outfit, Chester Everett and the Ranch Rhythmaires, and in a rockabilly act, the Blue Ribbon Boys. Luckily for his already hectic schedule, Ohlen is incorporating his passion for surf music into the Orangu-Tones' musical brew and doesn't plan to start another act to accommodate that love. The same goes for R&B and soul, which the Orangu-Tones also plan on eventually working into their set list.

The Orangu-Tones' genesis was in the works for quite some time before the band first took to the garage as a unit in February. "I think [Garrett and I] both have a common appreciation for old rock and roll, late-'50s/early-'60s rock and roll and R&B, that kind of thing," Ohlen says. "We used to do a lot of shows together when he was in Boss and I was in, well, whatever project I was in at the time." Those shows led to a perpetual conversation, and, come Y2K, the pieces started falling into place.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," says Brittenham about playing in a frat-rock band. "Kurt gave me the chance to do it."

So with his Rhythmaire/ Blue Ribbon cohorts and longtime friend Brittenham in tow, Ohlen had the Orangu-Tones nucleus in place, but one element was missing: They needed the squawk of that requisite horn. Enter "The Mysterious Kenny" (aka Kenny Davis).

"We decided we needed a sax player to kind of complete, both sonically and visually, the picture of what we've been going for with this group," Ohlen explains. "And I've known Kenny for quite a while. To be honest, I didn't even know he played saxophone. I approached him purely because I thought he looked real cool. And we were drunk."

"At the time, there was about ten years of dust on [my sax]," Davis says. "I had to go get it out of my father's basement." After brushing away the mothballs, however, Davis found himself a cozy spot blaring underneath the Orangu-Tones' racket.

And, like Ohlen says, Davis's look is up to frat-rock code. The same goes for the rest of the Orangu-Tones, where the rule of thumb is that clothes help make the band. The garb is definitely an eyeball-grabber: It's hard to miss five guys in matching coats and ties, especially when you're at the Raven or the Lion's Lair.

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Eric Peterson