Features & Columns

Silicon Valley's Garage Rock Band,
The Chocolate Watchband,
Eschews Kitschy Nostalgia

Garage and psychedelic rock meet in the middle when The Chocolate Watchband plays
BACK TO ROCK: Garage and psychedelic rock meet in the middle when The Chocolate Watchband plays.

The only San Jose band to share a lead singer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is returning to its home turf this weekend. The Chocolate Watchband initially came to life 50 years ago at Foothill College, but the legendary '60s psychedelic garage-rock specialists played so many shows in San Jose that the city became their hometown. It stuck to them.

The '60s-era members went on to various other exploits. Guitarist Tim Abbott now owns KVP Studios on Lawrence Expressway. Singer David Aguilar went on teach astrophysics and write science books for National Geographic. But during its heyday in the last half of the '60s, The Chocolate Watchband carved out quite a niche, successfully blending garage and psychedelic rock, beginning with a Stones-style R&B influence, and then eventually expanding into a more experimental multi-instrumental dimension, incorporating elements of surf, jazz and '60s exotica.

Locally, the band gigged at a variety of now-forgotten venues like Napredak Hall, the Continental Roller Rink, the Spectrum in Redwood City, Homer's Warehouse in Palo Alto, and Winchester Cathedral in Redwood City. They played everywhere, almost daily, and even appeared in two films, 1967's Riot on Sunset Strip and The Love-Ins. In the former case, the B-grade counterculture exploitation masterpiece featured the Watchband playing a few songs with Rickenbackers, mod haircuts and the whole nine yards. YouTube clips are everywhere. The band only lasted about five years before falling apart, but aficionados claim the Watchband were one of the best garage-rock outfits ever.

After reforming in 1999, the band has traveled through a few more phases and returns this Saturday to the Ritz in downtown San Jose. Joining them will be Darryl Hooper from the Seeds, adding a quintessential '60s keyboard element to the band's already eclectic panoply of sonic exploration.

Remarkably, there seems to be no sense of dreamy nostalgia about any of this, no sense of reliving the past. For a bunch of dudes pushing 70, the band members don't seem to be banking on previous careers at all. Instead, they just want to offer groovy tunes that transcend generations. There's a reason why those Nuggets albums still have a cult following all the way to Europe and South America, and there's a reason why the band's recent shows in Southern California attracted a mostly younger audience. What's more, for the upcoming San Jose gig, we thankfully won't see any "50th anniversary" marketing schlock. The band is above such nonsense.

"We really don't care about that stuff," Abbott says. "People who want us and who like Chocolate Watchband music, they know we're not saying, 'Oh, let's look how long we've been together.' We just want to make music that people want to come and rock to."

As an example, Abbott says, recent Watchband gigs in Southern California and Europe elicited emotional reactions from fans who seemed thrilled to experience vibes from decades ago but not in some kitschy, nostalgic way. The music resonated beyond any possible age difference, indicating the band's influence clearly lives on.

Local guitarist Derek See, for instance, worships at the altar of '60s music. In addition to playing guitar for opening band The Gentle Cycle, he will also sit in with Watchband for a few numbers. Even though See wasn't alive during Watchband's original heyday, he discovered them on Nuggets collections and a Rhino Records compilation when he was 11 years old.

"Hearing them and hearing all that music is part of what set me up on the path of hardcore record collecting at a young age," See recalls. "One thing that set the Watchband apart from other garage bands is that their records were very good. They weren't sloppy. They were tight. They were pros. They weren't screwing around. They were the real deal."

See's participation is an example of how the music is being passed down from generation to generation in San Jose. It should be inspiring to watch.

The Chocolate Watchband
Sat, Nov. 21; 8PM
The Ritz; $20 in advance, $25 at door