An Interview With The Elastic Band's David Cortopassi
Standout Group During Late '60s In San Fransico
If there was ever a time in rock and roll history that sired a rash of oddball recordings, it was the late sixties. And one of the wackiest of the bunch was "Spazz" by The Elastik Band, which truly defies description. Fueled by a harsh sound constructed of kinetic fuzztone guitars and pumping organ drills, the decidedly demented song further involves menacing lyrics that take potshots at a mentally challenged individual. Politically incorrect, to be sure, yet insanely funny and reeking of cracked brilliance.
Over the years, "Spazz" has surfaced on numerous garage rock compilations, lending it to be a certified classic of its era. Until recently, not a whole lot was known about the geniuses behind this goofy tune, but now that a collection of Elastik Band material has just been released, there's no excuse not to check out their additional efforts. What's really shocking, however, is that the group, who hailed from Belmont, California, a suburb located about twenty miles south of San Francisco, were far more commercially inclined than "Spazz" suggests.
A good majority of the tracks on The Elastik Band shimmer with solid gold pop rock reflexes, accompanied by periodic psychedelic flourishes. Made up of singer, guitarist and bassist David Cortopassi; singer, guitarist and bassist Scott Williams; bassist and singer Rusty Kierig; keyboardist and singer Russell Kerger; and drummer and singer Vince Silvera, here's a group that deserves to be recognized for their finely crafted confections.
[Beverly Paterson] I suppose the best place to always start is right from the beginning. Where were you born and raised and were you brought up in a musical household?
David Cortopassi I was born in San Francisco. Lived there until about five years old, then my family moved to Belmont, California. That's also about the time I started playing music professionally with my brother and sister. We performed on USO tours—United Service Organizations entertained the armed services. I wanted to be in the act, and they included me. We performed as the Cortopassi Trio, playing instruments, dancing and doing pantomime in a variety show called Braiden's Follies.
We were one of about ten acts that included anything from a magician to comedians to acrobats, and an all girl chorus line. Some of the performances were in top-secret camps. I can remember getting in a bus with an entire entourage. An MP would pull down the shades so we couldn't see where we were going. When we arrived, we would get inside an airplane hanger or walk through a canvas tunnel and there would be hundreds of soldiers waiting, literally hanging from the rafters cheering. We would get on stage, do the show, then get back on the bus without ever knowing where we performed.
[Beverly Paterson] Did you play in any groups prior to The Elastik Band? If so, what can you tell me about these outfits and did you record any material with any of them?
David Cortopassi My first band was called The Soul Survivors. I was a sophomore or junior in high school. That band played together for a couple of years doing gigs and small private parties. Mostly we just played in the garage. I formed The Elastik Band in 1965, right after graduating high school, and some of the members changed at that time also. We then called ourselves This Side Up and actually released a 45 under that name. Century Records released the single - "Lose Yourself"/"Turn Your Head." "Lose Yourself" is probably the closest comparison to "Spazz."
[Beverly Paterson] How did the members of The Elastik Band meet each other and go about forming a group? What was your original vision and who were some of your influences?
David Cortopassi I was introduced to Scott Williams by a mutual acquaintance that thought we'd be good together. Scott and I became immediate friends, got together with Vince Silvera on drums, with whom I graduated and had been playing with for years, added my cousin Russell on keyboards and sax, and I can't remember how we found Rusty Kierig on bass.
Although we had our own style and everything was original, The Elastik Band prided itself in being able to write and play many styles of music. A couple of songs were in the vein of The Mamas and The Papas ("All I Need"); others were like The Beau Brummels or The Byrds ("Mixed Emotions"); another had a feel like Paul Revere and The Raiders ("Back On My Feet"), and so on.
[Beverly Paterson] Where did your rehearsals take place and what do you remember most about them?
David Cortopassi We rehearsed in my parent's garage in Belmont. My mom and dad were very supportive of anything musical and always encouraged me. Occasionally, we'd get too loud and a neighbor would complain, but that really didn't happen very often. Even the neighbors were supportive, probably because we played melodic compositions and we played pretty good. All of us were serious about what we were doing and had been studying music for several years. Both my cousin, Russell, and I had been studying classical music for at least ten years by this time.
[Beverly Paterson] Where was The Elastik Band's first live performance held, what songs did you play, what was the audience's reaction, and were you nervous?
David Cortopassi The very first gig was for the YMCA in Belmont as The Soul Survivors. We were mostly doing cover songs then—stuff by The Turtles, Herman's Hermits, Paul Revere and The Raiders or The Stones. I remember that at the time most all the cool bands had brand new black Fender amps with these terrific shiny red lights on them. They looked fantastic, just like The Beatles, but something we couldn't afford or even rent.
We had terrible equipment and actually had to rent amplifiers and speakers in order to play the gig. They were old and brown, looked real stupid, and we didn't want anyone to see them. So we spent fifty dollars on wood to build a four-foot drum riser. We put the amps under it and hung a curtain around the riser so people wouldn't see what we were playing.
We did great and everybody loved the band. At the end of the night after the gig, though, all the kids thought we were lame when they saw us tear down and pack up our equipment. Funny thing is that those old brown tweed amps are worth a bloody fortune today. Wish I had one!
[Beverly Paterson] The San Francisco Bay Area was certainly a hotbed of musical activity in the late sixties. What exactly was it like to be in the middle of all those great sounds, and do you have any specific memories about the bands that were around back then?
David Cortopassi The Elastik Band happened during a time when the music scene was exploding in San Francisco. Having a band there then was as if you were at Woodstock, but not just for four days. It went on for years with tons of places to play, huge concerts everywhere. I think the thing most bands had going for them was that they possessed a feeling of unity and of belonging to something bigger than their own band.
Like other bands of that age, The Elastik Band was an extended family that thought of themselves as a group rather than individuals who just happen to be in a band. We not only were musicians, we were close friends that had a purpose, were part of a music movement and shared a strong sense of camaraderie and devotion to each other.
[Beverly Paterson] What were some of the venues you played at and how would you describe the atmosphere?
David Cortopassi We played many times at large concerts in Golden Gate Park and throughout California with bands like Steppenwolf, Jefferson Airplane, Bo Diddley, Syndicate Of Sound, Grateful Dead, Santana, Country Joe and The Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Animals, The Youngbloods and Bill Medley. We also played Bill Graham's Fillmore West as an opening act to bands. We mostly played in the San Francisco Bay Area. Later, when we signed with Universal, we played in the Los Angeles area and cities between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
About the farthest tour was Arizona when "Tunesmith" became number fifteen on the charts there. We gigged for a couple of weeks in that state. But, primarily we stayed in California. The atmosphere was pretty chaotic at times. Not knowing when you were scheduled to go on, playing on some other band's equipment, lending yours to another band or the drummer would fill in for someone who didn't show up in time. But that just seemed to add to the excitement. And of course there was always somebody from a record label checking acts out. I got to see and hear some great bands from both sides of the stage.
[Beverly Paterson] What was a typical Elastik Bamd show like? Did you play a lot of cover songs or did you focus on your own material? Are there any tapes around of your live gigs?
David Cortopassi The Elastik Band had a strong following and was well received whenever we played. Once we started recording, we only played original music. Our songs were usually played just like we recorded them, but we'd open them up a bit more and improvise some. We did a couple of local television shows from San Francisco, which were listed in "TV Guide" at the time. Other than still photos, there's nothing I know of on film. And I'm fairly certain the only recordings were done in the studios.
[Beverly Paterson] What TV shows did you appear on and what songs did you play?
David Cortopassi One particular TV show I remember was in 1969. Ross McGowen, who is now a news anchor, had his own local variety show. Don't remember exactly what we played at the time. Steppenwolf was also on the show that day.
[Beverly Paterson] Moving back in time a bit, how did This Side Up get signed to Century Records? Did you shop for a label on your own or did the record company come to you?
David Cortopassi Pretty much labels came to us. There was a ton of activity in the San Francisco Bay Area then, with many labels sprouting up everywhere. The earliest Elastik Band recordings were engineered by Brian Gardner in his living room way before he turned pro and started mastering bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane, to name only a few. Brian and his then co-producer, George Dipaola, had a production company called Contour-Mijji. They were largely responsible for getting This Side Up's release of "Lose Yourself"/"Turn Your Head" on Century Records in 1965.
[Beverly Paterson] What was the inspiration behind those songs?
David Cortopassi I guess you could say young-love-teenage-rejection. They're both "over" songs. A term or genre classification you don't hear much anymore in the industry today; meaning a song is about a broken relationship that's over or done with. I suppose my heart was broken at the time by a girlfriend.
[Beverly Paterson] Did the single receive much airplay?
David Cortopassi Not much that I can remember. Probably no more than a hundred singles were pressed. Their purpose was primarily to obtain greater interest from a larger label or promoter.
[Beverly Paterson] Why did This Side Up change their name? And where did the name The Elastik Band come from? It's a great name, by the way!
David Cortopassi Thank you. The name changed when we broke off relations with Contour-Mijji. We also changed the bass player at that point. We were trying to identify with a name that better reflected our desire to do a lot of different kinds of music. In truth, and probably still to this day, I consider myself more of a composer than a performer. Performing was simply a necessity in order to get your music heard. Of course, I never minded performing and always found it most rewarding.
[Beverly Paterson] What were the first songs you recorded as The Elastik Band and what procedures did you go through when promoting the material?
David Cortopassi Even now, I tend to think of albums as being a concept with an overall statement or direction rather than just a bunch of disassociated compositions contained on a record or CD. That being said, I'd have to say the first thirteen songs listed on our compilation CD (there are twenty-one cuts in all) were created as one presentation. Probably not the best answer to your question, but an honest response.
[Beverly Paterson] Did you perform "Spazz" in concert before putting it out on vinyl? If so, what was the audience's response? It's very unusual, but a great song, and sounds nothing like anything being played on the radio at the time!
David Cortopassi The Elastik Band really didn't have an opportunity to play "Spazz" much, even though when it was released on ATCO, things started looking pretty good. About the same time, our manager was setting up a trip to Europe to help promote the release on EMI's Stateside label. A few days later, we were advised not to go to Europe because if we did, it would be dangerous since people thought "Spazz" made fun of the mentally retarded. People threatened to throw rocks at us when we got off the plane. This was a total surprise to the group. But things were a lot different then. Today, any publicity would be good publicity. But that's another story. I'll jump off my soapbox now!
[Beverly Paterson] Who or what is making those weird sounds at the beginning of "Spazz"?
David Cortopassi Hate to admit it, but that's just me sounding a bit incoherent.
[Beverly Paterson] How did you come up with writing "Spazz" and how long did it take you to put it together?
David Cortopassi Some songs are written over a period of years, others within minutes. "Spazz" was written in minutes. As a teenager living in California during the mid-sixties, there was considerable peer pressure to try drugs. It was a difficult situation to battle and most everyone was trying to get me high, which made me feel like an outsider and even more rebellious about it. So, while everyone seemed to be dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms, I wrote "Spazz" as an anti-drug statement, never thinking it would be interpreted as anything else. But in retrospect, I doubt that anyone other than me knew what it was really about.
[Beverly Paterson] At along last, an Elastik Band retrospective is now available, which you released on your own label, Digital Cellars How and when did you become aware of a renewed interest in the band? How did you arrive at putting the disc together? I can imagine there's been a demand for an anthology of Elastik Band material since your singles are all pretty rare.
David Cortopassi "Spazz" has become a bit infamous with the garage band crowd over the years. And with that has come re-releases of the song on Pebbles and Nuggets, which resulted in the 45 being somewhat of a rare commodity selling for over three hundred dollars on eBay and over six hundred dollars in the UK. Several inquiries about The Elastik Band, and a few articles from hardcopy magazines such as Record Collector to a small flurry of mentions in internet publications and personal blogs led to our decision to release this CD. Some blogs argue whether or not "Spazz" denotes the birth of rap!
[Beverly Paterson] Is The Elastik Band the first release on your label? Can we expect any more records coming out on Digital Cellars?
David Cortopassi Digital Cellars has released three CDs entitled Pharaoh Of Mars, The Silicon Jungle and Embrace Destiny. All are currently in syndication, getting ariplay nationwide and in thirteen countries. Airplay for DMX alone reaches eighty million daily listeners, six million homes and one hundred and eighty thousand businesses. They're also available from major stores or online from The Orchard, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, CDnow and CDbaby. The Elastik Band CD is only available directly from Digital Cellars. We also have plans for a couple of other CDs, but probably not until the end of the year or 2008.
[Beverly Paterson] Most of the material on The Elastik Band is a collaboration between you and Scott Williams. How exactly did you share songwriting duties?
David Cortopassi Scott was a terrific co-writer and lead guitarist. Many songs were written together with him. He also sang, played bass and even played drums when we recorded by ourselves. The collaboration was pretty equal musically and lyrically, although I always depended upon him as a lyricist. He had great instincts and insight, particularly when it came to conveying a thought. I could say something stupid like, "I'm thinking underwater peanut butter," and he'd come up with a word or phrase that gave you just the feeling you were trying to portray. We worked together until about 1980 and remain close friends, although we don't see each other often.
[Beverly Paterson] For people who are only familiar with "Spazz," they are in for a big surprise when hearing the rest of the songs The Elastik Band wrote and recorded. Much of your material is catchy pop rock and just perfect for radio. You made good use of harmonies and your arrangements were very thoughtful. Were you aiming to get hit singles or were you more concerned with the artistic side of what you were doing?
David Cortopassi At the time, we were trying to get that top forty hook—a catchy phrase that you just can't get out of your mind. And it had to be melodic. Something easy for the listener to immediately remember. Formula songs, really. Minimally, they were two part or three part songs with a turn around and plenty of harmony. Lots of energy and feeling, even if it was a ballad.
[Beverly Paterson] What are some of your favorite Elastik Band songs and why are they your favorites? In addition, what are your memories of writing and recording these songs?
David Cortopassi I must admit I like most all the songs. I imagine that's because they each bring different memories to mind. And each time I hear the same song, it reminds me of yet another, different time. Maybe it's the time I actually wrote it, the recording session, playing somewhere or just the memory of a time in life when things were fun, sad, difficult, carefree, exciting, crazy, you name it.
Mostly though, I remember hard, rewarding work. Hundreds of very long recording sessions when we would go into the studio and not come out for a couple of days, but with something we were proud to have recorded. It would probably be easier to list the few songs I don't favor as much or are a little embarrassing to me now. But heck, I was pretty young and wrote some weird stuff.
[Beverly Paterson] Is there any chance of an Elastik Band reunion?
David Cortopassi No. I think those days are long gone. Don't even know what has happened to a couple of the members. And I can't imagine playing those songs at this point in time. If you were to listen to my recent CDs, you'd probably never think it was the same person.
[Beverly Paterson] What kind of music are you now playing? Aside from recording, do you ever perform live?
David Cortopassi To this day I pride myself on being able to write in different styles, which makes it hard to nail down a specific genre. Pharaoh of Mars, the first album recorded as an independent, is New Age. It's completely instrumental, charged with tribal and mystic ethereal sounds. But I certainly don't consider myself a New Age kind of guy. With Silicon Jungle I used a lot of epic cinematic orchestration in a World Beat motif with a mix of electronica. And Embrace Destiny is a fusion of jazz and light rock with ballads and lots of vocals. Very classic jazz structure with strong lyrics. I haven't performed live in several years, with the exception of sitting in with a couple of bands now and again.
[Beverly Paterson] Getting back to The Elastik Band, according to the liner notes on the CD, the group changed direction when signing with Kapp Records. Could you elaborate on this?
David Cortopassi Kapp was a division of Universal Records. When we signed with Uni, everything changed. Universal took control away from the band. They hired orchestras, arrangers and gave us a producer that just didn't compliment the band's music or direction.
[Beverly Paterson] The liner notes on The Elastik Band also state the group switched their name to Dangerfield and recorded a song called "Zig Zag Man." I'm familiar with a song of the same title, but the artist listed on the recording is Owen B. I was wondering if you're aware of this single and could it possibly be the same recording under a different title? As you well know, back then, sometimes record companies would release the same song but put a different band name on the disc.
David Cortopassi Interesting. In checking, I do note that BMI has four registrations of the title "Zig Zag Man," including my own. There's probably more if you check ASCAP. Owen B. isn't listed as a writer for any of them. Like to hear it.
[Beverly Paterson] What did you pursue after the Dangerfield episode? Have you played music on a continual basis since the sixties?
David Cortopassi I've played since I was five years old and still do, although I don't have a lot of time or opportunity to play as much. After The Elastik Band broke up, Scott Williams and I went on to form a seven piece, horn-based rock/fusion band called MAX, who opened for, amongst others, Tower of Power, Malo and The Sons of Champlin. MAX released an album in 1974 on the Pandora label entitled Rodan that is now also a collectable.
[Beverly Paterson] Does it surprise you that people are still interested in your recordings from the sixties after all these years?
David Cortopassi Surprised? How about amazed? The 45s have become so rare, that even I had to pay for a copy of the "Spazz" 45s to give to my own son! Ended up paying eighty-three dollars for it about ten years ago at an auction. "Spazz" has been bootlegged often and was recorded by several other bands. Jesters of Destiny released their own version of "Spazz" on an EP called In A Nostalgic Mood (1987) and a band called Sicbay released a version on a seven inch tour single in 2004.
[Beverly Paterson] What projects are you presently working on?
David Cortopassi At this time, we're working in reissues and previously unreleased works. We've had a lot of interest in putting out a Dangerfield CD. Dangerfield was essentially the same players as The Elastik Band, but the music changed quite a bit. We departed from the genre of top forty and pop, doing more underground music and harder rock. It's an entirely different feel and sound than what The Elastik Band previously had done, but it's still The Elastik Band. There's also been interest in MAX, which is something I'm more interested in and remastering and promoting. That was a strong band and one of which I'm probably most proud. Most other bands didn't want to follow MAX. It was a hard act to follow.
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