Greg Behrendt started guitar lessons at 44; the He's Just Not That Into You author and comedian, now 50, cashed in on lessons with professional guitarist Michael Eisenstein, a birthday present from his wife.
For Behrendt, the road to middle-aged surf-rocker has been paved in good advice and failed experiments. At his lowest point, right around the time the movie version of his famous work hit theaters and his talk show Greg Behrendt's Wake Up Call fell off the air, Behrendt almost had a nervous breakdown onstage.
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The downward trajectory didn't really end until he got out of rehab.
“I couldn't figure out how to get back to me,” he says now. “What about the things that I liked while I was growing up? Why can't I do that? Of course, that's a very selfish though to have when you're the parent of two girls and you have a wife and responsibilities.”
But even at the half-century mark he's making it happen, and he's got the mohawk to go with it. In 2007, his lessons with Eisenstein turned into a one-off song, and they formed the Reigning Monarchs, a North Hollywood-based band that toes a punk line between surf and ska.
Eisenstein rose to popularity in the late '90s as a member of power-pop band Letters to Cleo, and he continues to tour as a backing musician with acts like Melissa Etheridge. And though Behrendt spent the better part of 25 years on and off the stage as a comic, he originally moved to L.A. in 1994 with the hope of landing a record deal with his own pop group, The New Sheridans.
He gave the band two years before getting sober and moving on, only to find himself back in the recording studio decades later. “I had the biggest mouth and the least amount of talent,” Behrendt jokes. “It's a bad combination.”
For Behrendt and Eisenstein, now two full-length albums into their side career as middle-aged rockers with kids, the novelty has yet to completely wear off. Behrendt says: “I'm at a point in my life, though, where I'm just like, 'Let's figure out how this works.'”
In order to finance their latest release, September's Black Sweater Massacre, the guys, bassist Dave Hawkins and drummer Blair Sinta partnered with Indiegogo on a campaign to raise $10,000. To their surprise, they took in almost $30,000, thanks in large part to the combination of Cleo, Behrendt and surf rock fans.
For Behrendt, years spent as a second-wave ska fan transitioned into a deeper appreciation of earlier acts like the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker and Byron Lee, alongside classic surf albums, but Eisenstein didn't originally share his love of the genres. Their early songs began with Behrendt bringing broken riffs to Eisenstein, who filled them out even as he was learning more about ska and surf rock.
As their sound evolved, so did their style. From the beginning, the group played around with the idea of a uniform, abandoning tennis whites and black arm bands before settling on their now trademark black sweaters.
The look, which lends itself to their newest album title, has also caught on with fans, who can buy their own black R patches and Reigning Monarchs bowties to match on the group's site. “I've never seen a surf band that didn't look like they should be playing at the back of a crab shack,” Behrendt says, waving a hand tipped with black-and-white checked fingernails. “We added a little showbiz to it.”
Along the way, they've also recruited a few of their showbiz friends. Although they're still working on a full coast-to-coast tour, Reigning Monarchs have already played with singers including Aimee Mann and Nora Jones, and Dave Grohl and Ben Stiller have been known to wear Monarchs shirts. When Black Sweater Massacre was released, no fan touted it more strongly than comedian Patton Oswalt.
Right now, the Reigning Monarchs are still a dynamic, catchy side project the guys have hopes of translating into a larger focus in their lives. Behrendt admits his wife still hasn't fully signed on. A couple of their tracks have appeared in the background during shows on MTV, but they'd like to one day find a spot as a house band, either at a venue or on television, “like a punk version of The Roots,” Eisenstein explains. “I'd like to have a place where we can sit in the music community and be known.”
In the meantime, they're recording the entire process for a documentary they're calling Eat Pray Ska! It doesn't have an angle yet, but they'll know it when they find it, Behrendt says. Until then, they're two dads wearing black sweaters, making music and figuring it all out.
He runs a hand over his slicked-back mohawk. “I just like it high and tight,” he jokes. “Because when I grow it out, it's going to be all grey.”
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