W's Good, Devil Bad

by Lucas W. Hendrickson

For those of you keeping score at home, “w” stands for the 23rd letter of the alphabet.

The W’s, on the other hand, stand for something almost as simple: take six guys with a desire to make music, stir in a straightforward approach to timeless swing, fold in faith, mix well (preferably with a bowling pin) and serve it up hot.

The W’s debut album, Fourth from the Last, turned Christian music industry pundits’ heads last August when it did the improbable, debuting at No. 4 on The CCM update Christian Retail album chart, selling 9,000 copies in its first week of sales. Plus, the band’s first radio single, "The Devil Is Bad," peaked at No. 1 on Christian Rock radio airplay charts.

But the unexpected seems to be a common thread in the group’s story. Another improbable set of circumstances found the young band from Corvallis, Ore., (which consists of Andrew Schar, vocals/Guitar; Bret Barker, trumpet; James Carter, alto sax/vocals; Val Hellman, tenor sax/clarinet; Todd Gruener, bass; and Brian Morris, drums) opening for now-labelmates Five Iron Frenzy at an album release party. The band’s unique swing pop potential caught the ears of both the crowd and the folks at 5 Minute Walk Records, who signed them soon after.

"I love making things better," says Frank Tate of 5 Minute Walk/Sarabellum Records, "including bands with potential." And while Tate saw the group’s musical wherewithal during that party, he also saw them pitching in to help clean up afterward. "You can make a good band, but you can’t make good character. The guys have good character, a great work ethic and a pure heart to hear what God is saying to them in how to serve."

The W’s rely on Hellman, Carter and Barker’s horns to provide the signature sound for songs, an important element as the band heads out on the road this spring with dc Talk. Hellman says the role a horn man plays in a swing outfit is very different from trying to play horns in a rock or even a ska band.

"In swing music, the horn lines are a lot more complicated. We’re not really as good as we should be to play swing music, so we practice a lot," Hellman laughs. "The horn lines usually run up and down and jump from note to note. In a ska band, you might have a complicated horn line, but it’s a short one, and you repeat it four times. In a rock band, the horns are usually playing the bass note or chords and it’s mostly whole notes and not as complicated."

Hellman notes that the best part of being in the W’s is getting to be in a band with guys who share the same goals and beliefs.

"I had been in bands with non-Christians before, and it wasn’t exactly fun putting up with their antics and their attitudes toward me for being a Christian."

How can you be serious about being a band when the music is this fun? "We can be serious about being musicians and about the music. That’s one thing, but on stage and even when we’re practicing, we act goofy all the time. It makes it really fun, and it makes me want to keep doing it," Hellman says.

“Originally published in the January 1999 issue of CCM Magazine, copyright 1999, CCM Communications. Reprinted with permission. For CCM subscription information, please call: 800/333-9643.”