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Go Ape: San Jose's Stunt Monkey cold-called Bill Stevenson just to record with him.

Banana Squash

Stunt Monkey goes wild in the punk-pop jungle

By Sarah Quelland

STUNT MONKEY has a disease not far removed from Ebola. As frontman and guitarist Aram Sarkissian puts it, "The disease is the desire to play as much as you possibly can, to get out as much as you possibly can--and to do it at the expense of essentially everything else in your life."

Since Sarkissian and bassist Michael Rossi founded the irreverent punk-pop group in 1997, Stunt Monkey has become one of San Jose's most notable exports. Making music for the American Pie generation and its kid brothers and sisters, Stunt Monkey has done more than and outlived most local unsigned bands. The group has gotten airplay on mainstream radio stations like LIVE 105 and KMBY, played dates on the Van's Warped Tour three years in a row and, most recently, worked with producer Bill Stevenson (Black Flag, Descendents, ALL) and engineer Jason Livermore (Descendents, ALL) at the Blasting Room in Colorado.

There Stunt Monkey recorded 15 songs for its forthcoming album. Another two numbers were recently completed with Livermore at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco, bringing the total to 17 brand-new Stunt Monkey tracks. Songs like "My Girlfriend Likes Girls," "Cheer Up" and "Keep Coming Back" are waiting to be released, so what's the holdup? For the first time in their recording history--which includes For the Ear, Kid Tested, Mother Approved and With Lifelike Action!--the members of Stunt Monkey are confident that their next album will be released outside of their own Tastes Like Chicken label. They're exploring outside options.

"We want to do the very best thing that we can and the most that we can. But we also realize that we don't want to take forever doing it," Rossi says. "I think [second guitarist] Ben Lazarus said it best when someone asked him when the album was gonna come out. He said, '2003,' which is a perfect answer, because I think that's true."

Back in 1997, Sarkissian and Rossi never imagined they'd take the band this far. They thought it was a good way to have fun on the weekends and play in friend's garages. But as soon as they hit the clubs and released the For the Ear demo tape (an honest-to-goodness cassette), they started getting attention for songs like "Spy Girl" and "White-Trash Puppet Show."

Over the years, Sarkissian and Rossi have developed as songwriters, and the addition of new drummer Evan Bautista and guitarist Lazarus (both formerly of Manic Notion) has brought a heavier, fuller dynamic.

"We're one of the few bands out there that's gotten harder with every iteration," Rossi says. "Our stuff has gone from a very light pop-punk to a harder, more aggressive sound. What you will hear in the newest recordings is major-label quality," Rossi promises. "It stacks up against anything you'd hear on college or commercial radio."

It's that conviction and pride that led Stunt Monkey to Colorado to work with Stevenson. Taking a DIY approach, Stunt Monkey used guerrilla tactics to spark the producer's interest--they cold-called, explaining they were huge fans and wanted to record with him.

"I think on that level, Bill and Jason had their own sentimentality attached to it, because at the end of the day, that's really what the punk-rock ethic is about," Sarkissian says. "It's kind of a David-and-Goliath way to make an album of this quality."

With no label, no manager, no agent, no nothing, the band drove out to Colorado, where they ate, slept and, quite literally, breathed music. Showering and personal hygiene fell out in favor of recording. "We smelled like Castaway," Rossi adds.

The experience of working with Stevenson galvanized the band. Where yesterday's Stunt Monkey would toss snack cakes and toys into the audience and build upon its cartoonish image, today's Stunt Monkey is taking things a little more seriously. The band members are growing, and they hope their fans come along for the ride.

"We want people to know that we are about the music," says Sarkissian. "We've become much more serious about Stunt Monkey and what it means to us, because it's become much more part of us. It's really in our blood now."

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From the January 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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