By Brian D’Ambrosio EBS CONTRIBUTOR
RAPID CITY, S.D. – As the self-proclaimed “power-pop, garage rock” band The Reddmen prepare to tour for the first time in more than 10 years, J. Waylon Porcupine shakes off the rustiness.
Indeed, he once again has to become skilled at his own chords, licks and lyrics.
“The Reddmen are coming together and hopefully we still got the special sauce to make it happen,” said Porcupine, the primary lyricist-vocalist of The Reddmen. “I got a lot of homework to do to learn the songs again.”
Porcupine and Miyo One Arrow formed the band in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1995, around the time the two left the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana together and moved to Rapid City.
“I had been wanting to start this band since like 10th grade,” Porcupine told EBS in a May 5 phone interview. “In Busby, Montana (on the Northern Cheyenne reservation), I heard KISS, and I said that this is my calling in life. My older brother, Jake, was super metal and when my brother showed me KISS, I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I want to play rock ‘n’ roll from now on. You’re kind of drawn to these mythical people, right?”
In 1995, Porcupine was a rambunctious 16-year-old kid who’d just started to take music’s hegemony seriously. The most rewarding part of his days back then came when he was playing music with some of his friends behind Central High School or at one of the teen centers or coffeehouses downtown.
Despite the heavy, head-rattling influences of bands such as KISS, Porcupine said the intention of The Reddmen from the start was wholly pop-driven, a type of song he felt would never wear out. His goal then was not only to remind listeners how palatable that music is, but also how completely it permeates our culture.
Porcupine said that Rapid City, however, was not responsive to The Reddmen’s early vibe and the band looked for and found resonance in places such as Pierre, South Dakota; Casper, Wyoming; and Denver, Colorado.
“At that time, the Rapid City scene, there was a lot of crusty punk rock bands, noise core bands, like post-punk,” he said.“And we’re a pop band, right? We’re writing pop songs. And I don’t think that they were really ready for that. I was trying to write these classic-sounding, timeless songs and they were more into the chaotic, non-form fitting kind of noise rock.”
Motivated to craft reliable, easily-transmittable pop songs, Porcupine drew flashes of muse wherever he could find them.
“The college radio station posted the largest vinyl collection in South Dakota, and we would read the back of Thrasher or some music fanzine,” Porcupine recalled. “When they would reference these bands, we went to this radio station, literally found that record, and then took it home and listened to it. Or you’d hope to catch somebody on Conan O’Brien or David Letterman.”
Constantly tinkering with the roster of musicians, Porcupine brought in an upstart bass player named Trevor Leo and the personnel change catalyzed the best of chemistry.
“It was one of the things where you just knew it,” Porcupine said. “That was one of the things that really was the shot in the arm that it needed to take it to the next level.”
Injected with new vitality, The Reddmen toured frequently and tried to establish a clutch on the festival circuits. But it was the unexpected song placement on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” a medical-based ABC drama now in its 18th season, that delivered the band to commercial success.
“We had no label, no sponsorship. It was solely DIY,” Porcupine said.“We did everything from change our own oil to screen printing our own shirts. Especially being so remote, when you’re living out here, with no cool music scene or not a lot of resources, you really kind of got to figure it out on your own.”
As it turned out, a writer-editor for “Grey’s Anatomy” happened upon one of the band’s CDs, enjoyed what he heard and pushed to have it included on the show.
“I’ve still never met this person in my life,” Porcupine said. “We got an order for a CD in 2007 and a few months later, one of my friends, who was selling the CDs on his website, was like, ‘Hey, there are people trying to get ahold of you. They want to talk to you about licensing.’”
The song, “The Secrets of Amanda Prine,” appeared at the beginning of season three, episode 21, looped as part of montage of scenes. The song was used again for a special episode the following fall.
“The song is only, like, a minute and 15 seconds, but they just looped it forever,” Porcupine said. “Now the longer they play it in prime time, the more money you make. This is a song that was cut on an eight track in my basement with one microphone. That’s not supposed to be on TV, right? It is supposed to be dream boat bands that are burning up the charts. And here I am, I’ve made this thing, a couple years prior, and it’s on TV.”
The Reddmen seemed poised to soar to great heights. But soon after take-off, the engine lights wailed, smoke billowed and the plane was forced to make an emergency landing. Porcupine said that he was disappointed to find himself back on the tarmac.
“Other people wanted to move on with their lives,” said Porcupine of the internal issues that necessitated the band’s split. “People who felt like it was a hobby. We finally got our foot in the door, a springboard to whatever, now we have people who want to get off the ride.”
After the split, Porcupine, then 31, retired from music, but not for long. He eventually formed an alternative-indie band called Friends of Cesar Romero and moved to Arizona for a while.
And the others?
“Miyo was going through personal things in his life, cleaning up his act,” Porcupine said. “…Trevor got to get a job in Seattle. He hadn’t really explored life yet other than just playing in a rock band.”
After the sudden split in 2011, The Reddmen are finding closure on stage with one another again through a brief reunion tour that beginning May 13 will take them to fans in Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado and eventually South Dakota, where it all started.
Porcupine said he harbors no illusions that the traverse is some kind of fresh beginning or new chapter of The Reddmen. In fact, the converse is true: To him, he said, it’s more like a decent burial or homage.
The ceremonious goodbye will reunite Rapid City-based Porcupine with Trevor Leo, who now resides in Seattle and is active in the underground music scene there and Miyo One Arrow, presently a powwow singer based in eastern Montana.
“I agreed to do it because I felt like it was time to sort of just say goodbye,” Porcupine said. “We did it and it got properly put to rest, and it’ll be hopefully in a better place than where it last ended before. The Reddmen didn’t really get the farewell it should have gotten.”
Porcupine said that he has long since made peace with the disintegration of the band in 2011. He wanted only to construct a memorable pop song. Having achieved that, he is content to be forgotten.
“It’s kind of weird for me, because it’s reflective, and I don’t really like going backwards,” he said. “Now I have to dig all this stuff back out. Because I’ve written 90 percent of the songs, it’s got to do with my personal relationships and past relationships.”
Still, Porcupine said that he intends to not be devoured by the bottomless pit of the past but instead to Band-Aid any scar tissue and to concentrate on what matters most. The old songs present a mosaic of his world: They pulse, they move, they disappear and return.
“I need to take the personal part of my soul, my personal feelings out of it, and just be a good performer and play these songs well,” he said. “…Because the songs, I’m finding out, are standing the test of time. And there is no better feeling than when people relate to your music.”
The Reddmen perform at the Filling Station, May 17.