Strange Things Are Afoot in Wonderland: A Conversation With Radiation 4's Chris Negrete
New songs, new old songs, and an unheard version of Wonderland
Radiation 4’s sole full-length album, Wonderland is an underappreciated gem—one of those albums that flew under the radar, yet those who know it revere it. Lambgoat’s very own founder Alex even said of it, “This is a great full-length debut, and I'll expect nothing less on future releases,” in his 2003 review. Unfortunately, the group split up before those future releases could be realized.
Last year we revisited the record as part of our Lambgoat’s Least Hated Series and unbeknownst to us at the time, things were astir in the Southern, CA band’s world for the first time in nearly 20 years. In December, R4 posted a mysterious single called “Haunted” to their bandcamp page. It was a previously unrecorded track that the group had reconvened to lay down in a session that also yielded new, yet-to-be-released material from some of its core members.
At the same time, vocalist Chris Negrete accidentally unearthed Wonderland’s original abandoned mix (along with an outtake from the album’s sessions called “Snapshots”), something the band will be releasing September 9, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the record’s release.
With all of these things suddenly in motion, Negrete took some time to talk about the past, the present and future of Radiation 4, and to give us the story on all things Wonderland.
What is currently happening in the Radiation 4 world?
It's a lot of ideas and unfinished business in a lot of ways. Especially with “Haunted”, because that was a song that we only played live. It was always a hit, I felt like. You would always hear people yelling for that song, which is really weird, so we always played it. We always wanted to record it, and I was making a trip down to California last year, and then I got with Jon [Windham], our guitar player and said, "What the hell, we should record 'Haunted' and we got everyone on board for it for the most part. It was Jon, our guitar player, Clint [Heidorn], who left the band and we brought him back—he was an original member that was on our EP—and then Aaron [Windham], who is our drummer and is Jon's brother. All of us did it together. And then Clint did second guitar parts and then did bass on "Haunted". It was nice to get that off our plates in a lot of ways. I'm glad Jon still had the sample, which was great.
It was a good time, and from there John was working on some music with his son [Jonah], and he whipped together two songs last minute—I mean literally within a couple weeks—and brought them to me and said, "Let's do this." With really not a lot of time to absorb these songs, I just went down and recorded what I thought would be fun for those two songs. I didn't finish the second song, but I got that first song done, and it was during the same session when we recorded “Haunted”. Those two songs that we did are really the start of more, and I was speaking with Jon about it, where we're going to go with it, and we just really want to move forward with it. Obviously it's a remote situation because I live in Vancouver, Washington now, and he's down in Southern California, so it's going to be more him and his son collaborating and putting together these songs and recording them and shipping them over to me to get my thoughts and rehearse it—I have a whole setup here to rehearse these songs—and then go and record it.
How was it recording in this manner after all these years?
I fucking hate recording. Absolutely hate it. I have anxiety doing it, so just to get over the butterflies of just getting in there and doing it—and I think it was important who we worked with, as well. Because it's been a long time friend of mine, Rollie [Ulug] who plays guitar for a band called Teeth. He actually did the Playing Enemy recording that I did on I Was Your City—he did my vocal parts for that, and that was a long time ago. He's been a friend for many years. For me to be able to be comfortable and not be in front of a stranger recording is everything.
Does this new era of R4 stem from an idea of something that was so important to your life not being in it for such a long time?
I think what's important to recognize is that the people in this band are all childhood friends. Aaron was one of my best friends in high school, and then Jon is his brother, and that family has insane musical DNA. It came down from his father; every one of those guys has it, even Jonah. He plays guitar and he just fucking kills it on drums.
I've personally always felt like I was made for one band. I've done other projects and I love doing it. I'm doing something with another friend of mine; I play drums, too. I've done some solo stuff and done some collaborations, but as far as bands—I was in another band for a minute. I'm talking like 6 months and then I just became uninterested and it just didn't really connect with me. So I've always felt like this has been a part of my life.
The band never broke up; there was no reason for us to ever break up. It's something that was just put on hold. When everything makes sense and all those stars align, if it's a perfect opportunity—especially when we're trying to manage myself and Jon to work on stuff with a new band—it's trying to get everybody in line for it to be able to make sense. So the "Haunted" song, that took I don't know how many years, but we did it, so we got it done.
I've always said I'll be 67 years old screaming. I don't give a fuck. It's like, are you going to stop listening to metal and all that shit? Are you still going to be listening to that at 70/80 years old? Yeah, why would that ever stop? That's just who I am, and that's always how I felt about being in this band. It will always be there and the connection is us being lifelong friends.
Do you remember the circumstances around the band ending nearly twenty years ago?
I think it felt very mutual to just stop it and do a final show. I remember a big part of what changed within the band was Jon ended up having a kid, so that was a different dynamic. There was obviously different commitments. Other than that, it was a rotating second guitar player; we never really had anyone really solid. Chad [Tafolla] from Taken played guitar with us for many shows. We used to wear lab coats and he fucking hated it and would never put it on [laughs]. He'd be playing next to us in his jeans and t-shirt. Jose [Escobar], our bass player played guitar for us for a while we figured out a bass player situation, which we had a guy named Dave who played bass for us for a while.
We weren't really writing a lot of new stuff. We had a couple songs. I think we did three songs that are all instrumental, and I just never got vocals to a couple of them. It just started playing its course. I wish I had a good answer for that. Little tweaks in life just change how things work.
You were working on a follow up to Wonderland?
We were. We had a couple different names for what we wanted to do next. I wanted to do a record called Monstro, and that's what we decided on. It was kind of a play on Wonderland with the whale, because that's Monstro [of Disneyland notoriety]. I don't know how it changed, but we discussed it being called Freaks and I wanted to do a children's popup book of all these different freaks. If you've ever seen the movie Freaks, there is all these different unique individuals, so there was going to be a song related to each freak, and I think a lot of was inspired by "John vs. The Elephant" which is about The Elephantman. That's really what the inspiration was, but that was just a pipedream in many ways, to put a children's book together and to put a CD in there, or whatever it would be. That was the next thing we were working on.
That idea of a pop-up book totally fits the aesthetic of the band. Were all of these things—the pop-up book, the psychedelic feel of the Wonderland layout, the lab coats, etc—consciously thought out beforehand?
It just kind of worked out. We would get these ideas, whether they were stupid or not, and then we would just do them. I remember we played a show in Las Vegas once, it was with As I Lay Dying earlier on in their start, and they didn't want to headline the show because they didn't like the turnout. So we ended up swapping with them and headlining it and we had the best time of our lives. We did a beach theme. We put beach towels out and we had Capri Suns and coolers, Hawaiian shirts and board shorts. It was just a fun theme. We've always done little things like that.
None of it makes sense. On our lab coats we had nametags. My name was Dr. Radiation, and people had their different “Dr. This” and “Dr. That”. Some people washed their lab coats and some people didn't wash their lab coats.
What’s the story behind the Wonderland layout?
I saw a particular layout that I just loved, I'm not a particular fan of the band, but the layout was just so gorgeous that I was like, "Who the fuck did this?" It was actually Hopesfall's Satellite Years; I was enamored by that cover and the whole layout. I saw there was a guy named Chandler Owen who did it, and we had a budget for artists and we could go and source [art]. I found him and went and met him at his house just outside of Beverly Hills. He heard our music and I believe we were just kind of like, "Just listen to the record and however this makes you feel, just go do it." And he did it.
Where were you guys coming from in writing the material that would make up Wonderland?
I think it was all that we were fans of experimental music in so many ways. Our original guitar player, Clint was a big Mr. Bungle fan. In high school we were listening to Bungle. I'm going to hate this because everyone will say, "Oh, they were a Bungle rip off," but no, not really. Mike [Patton] is definitely an inspiration in many ways, just from his versatility. It's not that I ever wanted to emulate anything that he's done—and honestly, I don't hear the comparisons. Doing some weird vocals and something really off, you're Mike Patton, because no one else can do that. I've been really fascinated by that, and obviously I'm influenced—I admit it, I'm heavily influenced especially by the record Disco Volante, which I have a tattoo of. It's been with me since high school, so I'm definitely not new listening to Mike Patton.
What's funny is, I would tell you even more of an influence than Mike Patton ever was is Morrissey. I've been a huge Morrissey fan, and The Smiths fans since I was young—eight, nine years old. I've always loved his voice; I've always been fascinated with how beautiful somebody can sing. So that's been a huge inspiration.
Botch is definitely the biggest inspiration with our drummer and guitar player. I mean Jon and Aaron, and the whole crew; we're all Botch fans.
With all these things meshing together and from all the bands before Radiation 4 that I played in with Clint growing up—I mean, he lived with me in high school for a good amount of time, and we've done so much music together. It all just works together in some weird way. I think it's also important to recognize where people are in their lives and how you have to be one moving unit in order for this to work. We were one moving unit; we had one vision, one goal, and one focus. It was to take this as far as we can go and tour. We tried our hardest and we had the worst fucking luck you could imagine on tours. And timing. I've always felt like this band that we did back then wasn't meant for that time; it was meant for another time in life. I'm so grateful. We've taken it as far as we could with what we had, so it works until it doesn't work anymore. I wouldn't say that it doesn't work anymore, but it needs to get a rhythm going again. It needs to be a special place and time.
So there’s “Haunted”, there are these new songs in the pipeline, and there is also this alternate version of Wonderland. What’s the story behind that?
Just leading into Wonderland we ended up parting ways with Clint at the time. There was kind of a rush. We were really up to a deadline with the time we had booked up in Oakland, so we had to basically write some songs pretty quickly. Some of those songs that we ended up writing with just Jon, Aaron, Jose and myself were "Silence Fiction", "Tick. Tock. Tick." and then "Wonderland".
We also had "Snapshots" that we recorded but we removed off the record because it didn't make sense. If you hear that song it disrupts the flow of the record, I felt. It was a different vibe. We all unanimously agreed to take it off. So it never got on Wonderland.
I had heard a particular record that I was floored by and I had never heard a band like this before. What made it incredible was just the production of this particular record. [Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's] Grand Openings and Closings is probably one of the most amazing recorded records. You hear every instrument. It's just phenomenal. So I was like, "Who recorded this record?" and I'm looking in the notes and I see Dan Rathbun, and I'm like, "who the fuck is Dan Rathbun?" And I look it up and he's the bass player in Sleepytime. So I got in touch with him and he was interested in recording it, and I sent him a terrible recording just so he could get an idea of what we were, which is totally not his style. And we tracked the record with him.
What are your memories of recording Wonderland?
It was an experience. We lived with Dan for two weeks. He has a warehouse unit in downtown Oakland and there was mice and all sorts of weird stuff going on in there. It was a workshop where he made instruments. It was a very interesting experience to say the least. We slept in the rehearsal studio room where they had all their drums and guitars and shit set up.
We recorded the record with Dan, and it was back and forth with ten twelve-hour days at a studio called Polymorph. It was grueling. He was very checked out at times but he put a lot of effort into techniques on how he set up the recording and had really great ideas. I wanted our record to sound like that Sleepytime record, and he was very upfront about it and explained that it took nine or ten months to mix. I was like, "That's fine, we'll do it." It took forever to set things up, we were tired, we were uncomfortable sleeping on the floor in the studio, we were burned out, we didn't shower. It was just gross. You just started almost feeling like you were a part of that city with the grime and then just recording that way. Just being bored of eating the same thing everyday and having that personal space that we didn't have. It was a really weird time, and we did not expect this experience to happen while recording this record at all. It was just so fucking crazy. But I love it, because what came out of it. It's taken me a long time to appreciate this.
I was totally embarrassed of the vocals; I hated them. That was because I was burned out and I was exhausted, and it was just grueling. On top of that, after all the days we did recording and mixing our ears were so tired, we just couldn't hear a lot of what we wanted to hear.
It was interesting, we were driving home and we had the finished product unmastered. We were scared to listen to it and we turned it on and my immediate reaction was like, "Fuck." Painful. I was embarrassed to put this out. I just was. We were like, "What are we gonna do?" Originally Matt Bayles was our choice. We wanted to go with Matt at the beginning but he was a little bit over the budget and we didn't work with him. Which is funny because we ended up working with him after—for more money. But Matt saved the record and did a hell of a job.
What happened when you brought the tracks to Matt Bayles?
I had an opportunity to rerecord the vocals. Some of the vocals are from the original mix and a lot of the vocals are re-recorded, so there is a little bit of a blend. We recorded that at Studio Litho, and that's the bass player from Pearl Jam's studio. We had a good time. Matt can be very frustrating, but he's such a genius at the same time. He's just hard-headed guy. But he made our record sound awesome. He did what he could with it.
He remixed the whole record. What was hard for him, and is hard for a lot of people that record now was working with reels. That's something that I loved with Dan Rathbun. The version that I'm putting out was all done on reel, it's all analog. It has a very interesting sound to it. But Matt hooked it up and cleaned it up and made it sound great with just his own touch.
That's why there's two versions and I think they're very different versions.
Besides the rerecorded vocals, what else is different on the alternate?
The bass [on the alternate] is incredible. That's what captivated me. We all know how great Jose is and he's such a unique bassist. He loves jazz and has a jazz background, and he's such an incredible musician, and he's a great drummer too. It just soars. It's fucking crazy hearing that. And it's crazy hearing it so much later in life and really understanding and appreciating it.
It's been years, like twenty years. It's due to just maturity of sounds and recordings and other things I've listened to. If I think about what I was listening to then to what I listen to today, it's vastly different. For whatever reason I had this preconceived notion that it was the worst recording ever and it actually ended up being better than what I thought. I remember how disappointed I was with the vocals, but I'm not that disappointed like I thought I was. It felt good and it was reassuring to myself.
How did this alternate version come about after all these years?
I had a shitload of these CDRs in a spindle and I was going through them and I saw this mix. It was scratched up and I played it on my CD player and there was no skips. I listened to it and I was just like, "Holy shit, this sounds good. Why did I hate this so much?" I kept it safe and sent it down to Rollie and he organized all the tracks. It's raw. It's a rough mix, it's not mastered, it's really rough. But I thought it sounded decent enough. I talked to everyone about it and sent it to everybody and we all signed off on it.
I plan to release it on the anniversary. I'm going to do a tape and I'll probably do some lathe 12-inches of it. It's not really meant to be a big deal. If you can listen to it digitally, great. If you want the physical version, there's not going to be a whole lot of it.
What is the future of the band beyond that at this time?
We definitely want to take it as far as we can in the sense of just putting the work into it, making it a full-time band in a sense that we can do it remotely as best as we can. Obviously we have careers and we have different things going on in life. If you think about where we were in Radiation 4 so long ago, we were all still figuring shit out. We didn't have many commitments at the time. Nowadays we all have families and kids and stuff going on. I would love to record at least six or seven songs and just put it out there. It's cool that people will hear it, but it's really more for us.
For me, I'm speaking personally, just my fulfillment with getting older and not stopping. I'm going to be 44 years old next month, and you start to get to that age and you start to get bogged down with work and commitments, and you kind of put things in perspective and work on you. If you don't work on you, you die sad. Life's short, man, there's not a lot of time on Earth, and who the fuck knows what happens after all that. While you're here, make the best of it. For me it's fun because my kids always ask about stuff. They wanted to listen to that song that I recorded all the time, and they are really proud, and it's just inspiring in many ways and it feels really good and pumps you up a little bit.
Check out Radiation 4's bandcamp for more info.