Richie West

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Many drummers inevitably develop back problems, if not from the posture they use to sit at the set, then surely from lugging all the drum cases around. In the case of Richie West, there might be an additional…
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Many drummers inevitably develop back problems, if not from the posture they use to sit at the set, then surely from lugging all the drum cases around. In the case of Richie West, there might be an additional problem. Since he is part of California's creative music scene, which provides very little economic support to any of its participants, the multi-talented West has had to find something else to do to make money. So, he went crazy. Book Crazy, that is. That's the name of the used book company that he is part owner of, the inventory of which fills every possible breathing space in his home. Some piles of books are pushed aside to make room for drums, music stands, or his French horn case -- or is it the other way around? When not schlepping boxes of books around or answering 7 a.m. inquiries from fanatic collectors, West puts in appearances on a variety of recording projects and gigs. His recordings began with some of the side activity based around the popular college rock Camper Van Beethoven band in the '80s, such as the spin-off Monks of Doom or the hopefully never-to-be-forgotten wonderful rock big band Wrestling Worms based out of Santa Cruz just like the Camper Van Beethoven guys and often providing warm-up act support. The economics of the latter enteprise were probably enough to make West start his own business just by itself and by the late '80s, he had gone back to his native Los Angeles where he continued involvement with the rock scene, playing and recording with artists such as Mike Watt, as well as forays into the wild world of avant-garde jazz. It all began with accordion, predictably enough; after all, Anthony Braxton has said his first main musical influence was Frankie Yankovic. West studied the charismatic squeezebox beginning at about age five, continuing until his age had doubled with apparently no additions to his repertoire other than mastery of a song called "The Organ Grinder." After a break of a few years from any kind of musical activity, at 16 he became attracted to both the punk and British new wave scenes. "The knowledge that art majors or just plain inept musicians could make music was rather inspiring," West reports. His first professional gig was in college, playing at a dance where he literally plunged headlong into the thrills of rock stardom. He stage-dived as part of his performance, but the aftermath was hardly the kind of thing arrogant punk rockers brag about: West had to apologize to a young woman who had gotten clomped with his boot as a result of the dive. West claims to have made 30 dollars on this gig, a claim that is subject to speculation based on the realities of the Los Angeles music scene. At any rate, by this point he was playing bass, a favorite instrument of the technically retarded punk musician, in a band named Because of Christ. He had come a long way by the time he established his unique instrumental doubling on French horn and drums in Wrestling Worms. This was an extremely versatile band, playing medleys that jumped from James Brown to Neil Young covers with wild free jazz tossed in to liven things up. A crucial member of the group was pianist and arranger Graham Connah, who eventually became one of the most versatile players on the San Francisco jazz scene of the '90s and beyond. When the Camper Van Beethoven band began to establish their own label, Pitch-a-Tent, Wrestling Worms was one of the first acts to be presented with the opportunity to release a record; the band's self-titled debut remains its only recorded legacy. West was also a member of an early Camper Van Beethoven lineup when it was pretty much just a local college band at various times, with members such as David Lowery, Chris Molla, Chris Pedersen, Anthony Guess, and West all members of a band whose name promised quite some hilarity: Box o' Laffs.

As part of the Southern California scene, West regularly collaborates with players such as the Ventura trumpeter, bandleader, and composer Jeff Kaiser, whose album Nothing Is Not Breath: Music for Double Quartet presents some of West's finest drumming. West has been a regular accomplice of scat-singing experimental vocalist Bonnie Barnett and in the mid-'90s made several albums with the Mooseheart Faith Stellar Groove Band. He also played on the Mike Watt opus Ball-Hog or Tugboat? during this period. One of the most interesting meeting points for this region's punk rock and free jazz scenes was the SST Mojack album, which presented West as the drummer in an ensemble fronted by guitarist Greg Ginn of Black Flag fame. There are many listeners who feel this album predicts the later activities of that guitarist's instrumental band named Gone. West's projects as a bandleader have included appearing at the late, much lamented Berkeley new music venue Beanbenders fronting the Richie West Quartet, featuring his old bandmate Graham Connah on piano, Elliot Kavee on cello, and guitarist Alex Candelaria; or in duo with guitarist David Kwan. The coordinator of this series, composer and multi-instrumentalist Dan Plonsey, described West's percussion style accordingly: "His vocabulary derives from traditional jazz drumming, but he has so re-ordered the syntax, that one may get the impression that he is not from this planet at all." The drummer's compositions written for these engagements have been compared to the work of Thelonious Monk, but it might have more to do with the stuff West picked up on accordion as a kid, and at least he's not stage-diving anymore. In 2001, he took part in an Ojai recording session under the dual leadership of Jeff Kaiser and his guitarist partner, Ernesto Diaz-Infante, also featuring fellow percussionist Brad Dutz, trombonist Scot Ray, and the excellent bassist Jim Connolly. The California musician is in no relation to the Richie West who has released several 7" Euro-disco records.