“Monkey finger… walrus gumboot… spinal cracker…”
Bassist Clifton Weaver is rattling off nonsensical but cool-sounding word combos
from the Beatles’ “Come Together,” all of which were considered when his band,
the Mojo Filters, were picking a name. As far as we know, the first three are
still available (Spinal Cracker would be good for a speed metal group, don’tcha
think?) but for Weaver and the school chums he formed the band with in 1998, there
was never really a question. After all, “mojo” evokes magic and magnetism; it
also happens to be the name of England’s reigning music magazine, a pub that,
like the band, has as much enthusiasm for music’s past as its present.
The Mojo Filters’ music is hip-shaking and all-out go-go groovy, in a Billy-Preston-jamming-with-the-Stones kinda way. Like John Lennon’s quirky phraseology in “Come Together,” their lyrics are rarely literal — and, really, who cares what they’re saying when the rhythms are so infectious? The band’s new eponymous self-release conjures The MC5 and Motown, and their videos have an old-fashioned, multiframed/hued ’60s rock-doc feel. But don’t call them revivalists!
“I never saw us as being retro,” says Weaver matter-of-factly. “If it seems like we kind of idealize music of the past, I think it’s more because of a certain quality it has, not so much for nostalgia or trying to recreate a lost time period.”
Weaver and lead singer George Karambelas are taking a break from rehearsing, chatting outside a busy practice space on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood; cars zoom past as long-haired dudes with that tired-from-the-day-job look roll their gear around us. The Filters — who mostly grew up in L.A. suburbs and now live in La Mirada — do the 9-5 thing just like everyone else, and are more realistic than idealistic about being in an unsigned band. Still, somehow, they remain high-spirited and totally unjaded.
Onstage and off, they come off like super-nice boys next door — no rock-star arrogance or enigmatic pretense. But what they lack in bad-boy swagger they make up for in charm and a passion for making music, which has always been an escape from the daily grind. “We really had no direction in the beginning,” says Karambelas. “The band was just a way to beat the boredom of being stuck in Orange County.”
That changed around 1999, after the guys graduated from college and became part of the mod/Britpop scene shimmying around L.A. at gatherings like Solid, Café Bleu and Shout.
“I was going out to those clubs and just absorbing more of the music and meeting people who were into what I’m into,” remembers Weaver. “Stuff like Curtis Mayfield, the Yardbirds and the Animals, and newer Britpop.”
Weaver and Karambelas — along with his brother Jimmy Karambelas on guitar, organist Justin Molnar and drummer Anish Chandra — soon became regulars on the stage as well as the dance floor at the Britpop boîtes, playing regular gigs for the scooter-riding, go-go-booting, spiffed-up suit-and-tie crowd.
DJ/promoter Tamar Michelle also started booking them at her Thursday-night love-in at the Three Clubs, which melded both ’60s and ’70s sensibilities with a modern vibe. It soon became apparent their R&B-based grinds had wider appeal. “They have a certain style that I had never seen in any other soul band — and still haven’t,” says Michelle. “A lot of soul bands try to get down in the gutter, and that’s great, but the Mojos can really play. They’re truly solid and authentic.”
Snapping with rubber-band riffage and hooky choruses, tunes such as “Here to Denmark” and “I Can’t Win” are the kind of joyous soul-shakers you just don’t hear anywhere but classic-rock radio anymore. Karambelas sings the way he rattles his rusty tambourine — excited, but never overexerted.
These days the band can and do play everywhere, from a supporting gig for Love (their idols) in San Juan Capistrano to rocking out with kiddie-punk combos at the recent Fuck Yeah Fest at the Echo. But they do have their limits. “We tend to stay away from the Strip,” states Karambelas. ”That’s not really our scene.”
“Too much jock rock over there,” adds Weaver.
Jock rock is one thing, but don’t even get ’em started on the arty, ’80s-tainted schlock rockers currently the rage with the MySpace generation.
“A lot of bands right now seem to be chasing trends because they think that’s the way to make it. There’s the whole irony thing that’s really big right now. They’re playing crap music because they think it’s, like, funny or kitschy or whatever. And we’re not about that. Even if a song does contain humor, the song itself is not a joke. What we do is not a joke. It’s honest.”
Excuse the retro song reference, but I’m a believer.