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Sweet Sixties Sound
THE ONLY San Jose psychedelic garage-rock band ever to share a member with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics just completed a brand-new album. Originally disbanding 41 years ago, the Chocolate Watchband has been back together for at least 12 years now, with periodic spells of activity, since lead singer David Aguilar sets up shop in Boston, where he teaches astrophysics and writes science books for National Geographic.
But now things are heating up. Just a few weeks ago, the band released a Greatest Hits album of tunes it rerecorded at KVP Studio in Santa Clara last year. The goal was to re-create the sound and energy they had on the first three Watchband albums in 1966, '67 and '68.
The group reproduced the reverb of the old "echo chamber." They used the exotic instrumentation—sitar, bouzouki, temple bells and a Theremin—that gave the original recordings their distinctive sound. The album is available on iTunes now.
"We really focused on listening to the original material and figuring out what the spirit, the heart and the magic was, and how to re-create that," said Tim Abbott, the Watchband's guitarist. "We used tape-emulation programs, we used a lot of tube stuff, tube amps, tube preamps, a lot of old-style vintage compressors, as much vintage gear as we could."
The Chocolate Watchband originally formed in San Jose in 1965. The band's music was a blend of garage and psychedelic rock, taking influences from blues and British R&B but with an experimental, multi-instrumental edge. The band incorporated elements of surf, jazz and '60s exotica, all under the umbrella of the drug-addled antiwar era.
The Watchband appeared in two films: 1967's Riot on Sunset Strip and The Love-Ins. Locally, the band gigged at a variety of places: Napredak Hall, the Continental Roller Rink, the San Jose Civic, the Spectrum in Redwood City, Homer's Warehouse in Palo Alto. Circa 1967, the group played every night at Winchester Cathedral in Redwood City with Sly and the Family Stone. At the Coconut Grove in Santa Cruz, the Watchband played at least once a month.
"There were free concerts everywhere," Abbott said. "San Francisco, up and down the peninsula, block parties, the park across from Stanford Shopping Center. There were venues everywhere. We were just playing our brains out. There was never a 'Hello, we gotta get a gig.' There were opportunities everywhere."
In those days, the legendary Stevens Music in Willow Glen supplied all of the band's equipment. The Watchband originally went for a Rolling Stones style, British-influenced sound, and the store provided all the Vox amplifiers.
Today, Abbott actually runs KVP Studio in Santa Clara, where the sessions went down. Rerecording the old material was just a prelude for the band's next step. Last month, the Watchband cut more than a dozen brand-new songs.
Abbott won't blow the whistle on everything yet, but he says the new work is essentially a biography of the Chocolate Watchband, including songs about the band itself. Aguilar wrote most of the lyrics, and the band collaborated on the songwriting.
"This is the next album that would have come out in the '60s, stylistically and soundwise," Abbott said, adding that a good amount of slide guitar and even sitar parts appear throughout the entire project. "It's going to have the full Watchband thing going on, with the different instruments and sounds. There's quite a range of moods."
Currently, the band will also be included on a multiple-CD tribute to Sky Saxon of the Seeds, who passed away last year. For that project, folks like Iggy Pop and Billy Corgan are also on board.
"We're still going," Abbott said. "We were 'back in the day,' but we're still doing it. The last 10 years, we've done some of the biggest shows we've ever done, bigger than the shows we did in the '60s. It's been good, but we're looking forward to being even better."