Posted - 07/06/2010 : 12:05:05 PM
Interview with: Vince Licassi
Music Group: The Kids of Widney High
Interviewed by: Allen Klingelhoets
Allen: How long have you been a member of the music group "The Kids of Widney High"?
Vince: I joined The Kids of Widney High (KOWH) in 1996 or so, shortly after I started teaching at Widney.
Allen: How many members are in music group?
Vince: The line up has varied over the decades; currently, there are 7 or 8 singers and 5 instrumentalists. The regular singers, for a good number of years, have been: Elisa De La Torre, Luis “PeeWee” Fernandez, Daniel Cubas, Shelly Goodhope, Cain Fonseca, Tanesa Tarvin, and Matty Carvajal. Additionally, on a steady basis for at least the last few years, we have been joined by former Widney student, walking rock and roll rockipedia, and one-man band promoter, Tony Whitfield, who titles himself the “5th Beatle” of the group.
You will find all the above-mentioned in the comic; but, for the record, before that, around the time of the “Let’s Get Busy” CD (Ipecac Recordings), there were a few others; and before that, before my time with the group, around the time of “Special Music from Special Kids” CD (Rounder Records), there yet were others – you get the picture. Many of those not currently performing have songwriting credits, as well.
Regarding the instrumentalist musicians who back-up in up-front awe are currently, and for a long time have been; well, since before we appeared in the movie, “The Ringer” (as the movie's "house band,” put out by Fox Searchlight in 2005): Judy Rudin-harmonica; Tony Bollas-drums; Spero Anthony-bass; our leader and band-founder, Michael Monagan-guitar; and myself, Vince Licassi-guitar, likely the “Pete Best” of the group.
I want to mention that before Tony (Bollas) and Spero, also around the time of “Let’s Get Busy,” we jammed our collective you-name-its off with Kedron Parker-bass and Brian Glascock-drums; yes, that Brian Glascock; I love all of them, including those I have not mentioned.
Allen: Tell me about the members. What are special disabilities of each member?
Vince: Well, I am humbled, but, you would get the best answer if you ask each of them directly that particular question - I wouldn’t want to be incomplete/inaccurate; I mean, I can only speak about myself regarding my own disability: music; if you will forgive me, I can say a bit about their special abilities in a stream of consciousness format: Elisa De La Torre: honest, self-deprecating confidence, romantic realist, truly cares about others; Luis “PeeWee” Fernandez: direct, appreciative, no-holds barred approach to life; zero-tolerance for the inept/unlimited tolerance for the real; Daniel Cubas: questioning, always questioning, and, after that, questioning – the Aristotle of the group; Shelly Goodhope: focused happiness; fathomless movie detail knowledge; onstage does the most contagious, enthusiastic Texas two-step you have ever seen; Cain Fonseca: sincerely wants to be your friend (don’t take that lightly); loves the Beatles, John Denver, ranchero music (something like that?) and hard core dance music (I saw him dance full-speed for at least an hour one night with three or four women at his b.day party in east L.A.); do not, I REPEAT, DO NOT, especially if he eats three slices of pizza at a gig (our pay for playing), let him drink a couple of beers afterwards – at least, if: you are giving him a ride home, he’s bouncing in the back seat of your car in the fast lane of the Interstate 5 freeway at 70mph and it is about 80 degrees – I did that and my car still smells like puke, months later! Hey, I am sure it would be hard for me, too, if I couldn’t see; Tanesa Tarvin: the mother-hen of the group, great energy, helps the other singers out onstage, getting to and from their mic, etc. (occasionally she has pissed them off if they didn’t want the help); notably turns around and shakes her fist on stage at you in disgust when you hit a wrong note (or, even if you don’t); otherwise, very understanding/accepting; Matty Carvajal: described by others as angelic as can be; she is sincere, kind, and wise.
Allen: Are any of music members still students of J.P. Widney High?
Vince: No, all alums – Michael (Monagan) continues to have a song-writing class at Widney, with a different group of kids, writing songs, singing, etc.
Allen: How long has band been in existence?
Vince: Michael Monagan founded it in 1988 as a song writing class at Widney. It’s been going on in one form or another ever since.
Allen: About how many people attend a Kids of Widney High concert?
Vince: It varies, anywhere from a couple dozen to hundreds - we are often on a bill with other bands.
Allen: What instrument do you play?
Allen: Who was inspiration for band?
Vince: I am not sure.
Allen: Tell me about J. P. Widney High School. I see school is located in Los Angeles.
Vince: It is a special ed center, part of LAUSD, with students in age from 13 to 22. I think it has been there at its current location since about 1967? At this time I don’t think the enrollment is more than 200 to 300? I always liked the school because it was challenging to work there but more easy going than other schools in some ways. The student population, in terms of severity of disabilities, has progressively increased over the years – now it consists of the most severe of the severe; everyone else, whenever and if at all possible, gets “mainstreamed” into the general ed student population into everyday, typical high schools. While some of the students at Widney are relatively more able, i.e., they can walk and talk -- some are in hospital-like beds a lot of the day, they need diaper changing, they get fed by tubes, are non-verbal, sometimes extremely fragile, etc. But they aren’t there for those reasons alone, because according to the laws of the land those shouldn’t put one there– they are also cognitively very, very delayed; they are there for their own safety and, I am guessing, because of the care and the kinds of services that aren’t readily available elsewhere; still, there are those that would close the sp ed centers, seeing them as environments that are too restrictive, keeping the students away from their typical peers, etc. Long before I got there, if a student had even a slight physical impairment, yet were cognitively intact as you or me - well, at least you - they were offered if not sent to Widney. I met a cafeteria worker at another school who said that when she got to Los Angeles, they offered her Widney because she had a deformed hand – they didn’t want her to feel “different” at her local high school – she vehemently turned down the offer, opting to take her lumps as they came and she ended up doing fine. Way back when, Widney was run as small high school with special services, it had sports (like wheelchair basketball and others), workshop class, life skills, all kinds of clubs and a student council; yet diplomas were offered and all the core curriculum subjects, like higher math, literature, history, and so on; in the modern era, there is less sequestering of people with disabilities as a result of federal laws, advocates, parents who want that for their students, and so on. We see a parallel trend starting to be reflected in the general population, outside of school life -- in the USA, anyway. The alumni in the current KOWH band would likely have been mainstreamed if they were entering school today.
Allen: Tell me about when you taught at Widney High.
Vince: It was a great learning experience for me. I worked with students with many types of severe disabilities, CP, MD, VI, developmental delays, MR, autism; some terminal, some there as a result of gunshot wounds had on the streets, etc. Once in a while we’d get a teenaged student in a wheelchair from another country who had never been to a school – people with disabilities for whatever reasons are kept at home in some countries. Without a doubt I learned more than I taught. I taught multiple subjects for the first two or three years – pretty much the last “diploma track” kids at Widney, a last vestige of the days when Widney offered actual high school diplomas to most of the students. I had a fairly steady class roster/group of students throughout the day, kind of a one-room schoolhouse within a larger school – some of those students are now in the current band line-up, Elisa, PeeWee, Daniel; it was nice because when we all went to Michael Monagan’s music class, I could bring my guitar and jam with him while students sang. If adults that work there happen to play an instrument or sing, he invites them to play with the class like that. You’d always hear music coming from his room, some teachers complained that it was too loud. Then for a few years after that I taught computer skills in the lab, I ran into lots more students, not just those on the diploma track; they cycled through each period, some who used specialized devices, like switches and such for using the computer or communication, etc. Matty was in one of those classes. Shelly, Tanesa and Cain were at the school but not in any of my classes that I can recall. Aside from the students themselves, I also learned a lot from the teachers and the concentration of other specialists, some who had been there for many years.
Allen: Tell me about way that you help other special education students at other local schools. Where is program based? Is it at Widney High or another location?
Vince: Well, I am part of the small assistive technology/augmentative communication division of LAUSD, based in a bungalow/satellite office on the Widney campus. I go school-to-school all over assessing, writing reports, making recommendations, ordering software or devices, then delivering and training on the equipment, and so on. I am there to support the classroom teachers, when needed, often when there is a special ed student mainstreamed into their general ed classroom.
Allen: Do The Kids at Widney High have many concerts a year?
Vince: For a long time it has averaged about once a month, we’ll have a few clustered together, then a dry spell. We are in one now. It’s that way because we don’t really promote ourselves; people come to us now and then. The good thing is that we don’t burn out and I have/get to relearn the songs and reinvent my parts for each gig.
Allen: I have helped raise money for various charities. What is purpose of your group performances? Are you as group attempting to raise money for charity?
Vince: I am interested and applaud you in your efforts. While we are not out raising money for a particular charity, or only charity, we often play shows that are for one charity or another; a few months ago we did one for Haiti and we’ve done a disability fair here and there, maybe an autism fundraiser – we fit into these easily, never forgetting our roots, though they sometimes aren’t ready for the amount of sound we put out; but we also do alternative club shows all over town, where we also fit in – it works because there is a lot of diversity in the clubs out there in general. The purpose of the performances is fun…great fun, speaking for myself, anyway; and the individual singers, I don’t know exactly, I’d ask them; and the audience -- it’s for whatever they get out of it – enjoyment of songs,confusion,identification.
Allen: How do you feel when playing music for group?
Vince: Enjoyment of songs, confusion, identification. It’s always special when after a show, someone comes up to me, looks me meaningfully in the eyes, pats me on the head and says to me slowly, “great – job….way – to - go!” I like the spontaneity within the structure of the performance format. I love playing the songs the Kids have written over the years, mostly because they are really good songs in and of themselves that have meaning. (The little parts I play/come up with seem to evolve; it keeps my interest up); I try my best because I don’t want to let the Kids down; I know each show means a lot to each one of them and the rest of the musicians. I like being in the background with the Kids being the focus of attention; no one notices or cares when I make a mistake…except Tanesa! I want to follow those instances…into positive musical opportunities.
Allen: When did you first recognize that you liked playing guitar music? What was your first guitar?
Vince: I liked the idea of it early on – I got my first guitar when I was about 10. I had a bag of coins, emptied it on a counter at the local music store, my mom was with me and she made up the rest. I don’t remember the brand but it was a steel string, small-bodied, dark brown (all mahogany), with a black pickguard. I got more serious at about 14, a tuning key had snapped off of my first guitar and I traded it in towards a $36 dollar nylon string; later, my first electric was a Kimberly.
Allen: I talked to Mike Wellman from Atomic Basement. Tell me your version about The Kids of Widney High comic book. Tell me how happened to go from concert to comic book story and what was your part in creating comic book? How did it all get put together as story?
Vince: I’m not sure what Mike said but some years ago, for a couple of years in a row, we, KOWH, played at Geoffrey’s Comics in Gardena, CA, where Mike was working at the time. I had read comics a lot as a kid and had the idea that the Kids of Widney High would be great in a comic. I mentioned the idea to Tony Whitfield a couple of years later as we were driving to visit Mike at another comic store, the Comic Bug (back when it was around the corner from its current location, before a fire). After a more recent gig I suggested my idea to a number of band members, Mike, etc., in a group reply to an email. The idea took off -- Mike got in touch with a number of comic book artists that he knew and the next thing you know, we had a meeting at the Comic Bug with the KOWH, a number of the artists, etc. We decided that the Kids would work in writing pairs or as individuals, each coming up with a separate vignette to be complied in the book; they had the option of going with anything they wanted, whether it be fiction, fantasy, reality-based, social commentary, slice of life…it could be “beyond the sky’s the limit!” Then, Mike and I started on a series of visits to/sessions with each individual or pair of Kids and audio recorded their ideas/visions. We had lots of material; to make it authentic we wanted to use in the book the actual ideas, words and phrasings of the Kids – including their own grammar, verbal idiosyncrasies, creative word choices and story lines from their individual visionary brain folds; all the good stuff. After we got everybody’s input, Mike thought the vignettes were interestingly similar enough to weave them into one continuous storyline; each drawing artist would take chunks of it, not necessarily sequentially, but popping in and out, as needed, to make the story work. So, we see a few different artists drawing, for example, Daniel and Shelly in their own style. The artists, Chuck B.B., Jim Mahfood, Rafael Navarro, along with “up and coming new talent,” Rikki Niehaus, Neal Von Flue, Robbi Rodriguez and Chris Brandt, never saw how the others interpreted the faces of the Kids. Regarding my part in the drawing, Mike asked me for some sketches of what Dr. Groofball (Tony’s name for the antagonist) might look like. You can see his split-level face/head and prominent sideburns in a couple of the artist’s renditions; Regarding my part in the script, Mike asked me to assist in sketching out Daniel’s section, lots of political/social commentary, into a story format/sequence – I based the dialog/action sequence on his words in the interview Mike and I did with him and on a youtube video in which he expresses much of the same concerns. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoCzL95klk8)
Allen: How did research happen for story?
Vince: There was no research; it was all based on our real life experiences.
Allen: How did group come up with title for story?
Vince: Regarding the book's title, it happened at the filmed and audio-recorded kick-off group meeting at The Comic Bug comic shop in Manhattan Beach, CA. There the concept for the comic was presented to the singers/former students and some of the artists. At one point, I was explaining to the Kids that the idea was for them to come up with anything they wanted for the comic story and their characters, I said, "it's the sky's the limit, in fact, (since it can be whatever you want and anything goes), it's beyond the sky's the limit!!" Then band member Shelly Goodhope smiled and repeated it a couple times, "beyond the sky's the limit…it’s beyond the sky's the limit!" Some time after the meeting, while we were into the writing stages, Mike Wellman, Atomic Basement/Comic Bug impresario, suggested to me that we use that phrase for the title of the comic; I was all for it.
Allen: Do you like result of comic book?
Vince: Yes, in my opinion it is a work of art. I am in awe of just the collaboration involved, for starters. The ideas and words that the Kids came up with, etc., the different artist’s styles, and so on. It’s the cross-cultural genre of rock and comic and disabilities that is different.
Allen: Is there another print run planned? I read only 1500 hundred copies of first print were published. How can someone get copy? How much did it cost for issue?
Vince: There is not another print planned, but it isn’t out of the question; we’d have to sell out and then get more requests; it could happen but we haven’t broke even yet and that is with everyone donating their time/work and some individuals fronting or donating the money to get it printed. I don’t have the exact cost for issue, I can’t account for the hours of donated time and work that went into it. For example, the artists donated their artwork, the Kids did it for creative fun at this point (though they will split any profits), Mike Wellman saved us printing/shipping costs by combining it with another order of his since he writes and publishes his own comics (see http://www.atomicbasement.com/), and so on. All I can say is that we are having fun and meeting people. As far as getting one of the remaining copies, while we had a one shot deal with Diamond Comic Distributers, now the only way is through the KOWH website’s PayPal link at http://kidsofwidneyhigh.com; otherwise, send me an email at email@example.com.
Allen: How were artists selected? Were you part of that process for KOWH comic book?
Vince: Mike Wellman selected/solicited the artists, I explained my participation above.
Allen: What future concerts are planned for KOWH?
Vince: We’ve got something lined up in the fall, not sure what it is exactly.
Allen: Does group have website? What is address?
Vince: Yes, http://kidsofwidneyhigh.com.
Allen: What are some of your hobbies?
Vince: I love music and since I am not all that natural at it, kind of average in the big picture, I try fairly hard, enjoying the process of trying to understand it from any angle that I can. Over the years I’ve liked going to used book sales and collect music theory books, music scores, and so on. It’s a library of sorts I am putting together so that I will never be bored, I have a plan of study for these; I am slowing up these acquisitions because I am basically out of room. It gets to the point to where you have to focus/narrow a collection so that it doesn’t get out of hand. Sometimes I get in the mood to buy cheap but odd stuff at garage sales with the intention enjoying and then some day selling on eBay – I have slowed down in that because I haven’t gotten to the selling, I have no idea what I am doing; so, I feel like I have a lot of clutter - anyone need a lava lamp? I like looking at musical instruments for sale on Craigslist or eBay and using what I see as a starting points for self-education, researching them online, reading about their history; e.g., and then this leads to specifics like finding out about what different amp tubes do for an amp and why, understanding the various kinds of woods, hardware, and wiring that make guitars; what players have used over the years, instrumental techniques, youtube demonstrations, guitar tech/user forums, and so on. You know, online, one link leads to another; I get a lot of knowledge about instruments and music, in general – when I occasionally buy something, I know what I am getting more than I would have otherwise.
Allen: What kind of comics did you read as a kid? What kind do you read now?
Vince: As a kid I read DC comics, for the most part, Superman, Superboy, Batman (and Robin), Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Super Girl, Action, Detective, Justice League of America, Legion of Super Heroes; some Aquaman, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow, as well; all that stuff. Right now I occasionally will read a comic; either one that is recommended to me by those in the know, like, “Secret Identity” by Busiek and Immonen and “Centifolia,” again, by Stuart Immonen; or, if I can, what is put out by artists that I have met recently, but, on the other end of the spectrum, I’ll read what I serendipitously run into at a yard sale (Ren & Stimpy) -- there is so much out there!
Allen: How can someone contact you?
Allen: What are some of your best memories from playing with KOWH group? Have there been inspirational moments?
Vince: What I especially like is all the life that unfolds onstage amongst the Kids between songs – it’s always improvised, sometimes friendly, sometimes tense. I like it when we don’t have to play songs one after the other because of time constraints; it’s best when the Kids can talk in the mics to each other and with the audience. There have been a lot of memories, liked the rode trips to San Francisco, playing shows with Mr. Bungle and Fantomas, including members of the Melvins; I like the set by the Melvins when we went up there to play on New Years Eve, 1999, bringing in the 2000; the House of Blues gigs, standing outside a bar in Downtown LA talking to friends and band members, listening to Melt-Banana melt the place; I liked the trips to Austin for The Ringer movie and especially, once there, how we found gigs on the spot, for the evenings when we weren’t on the set; anyone who saw the performance at the Red Eyed Fly in Austin will not have forgotten it – wall–to-wall people, screaming beer bar energy, laughing beyond thought…it’s what’s possible.
Allen: What future concert projects is group working on producing?
Vince: Michael will have more info about that. We have a gig this fall, I forget what it is, gigs pop up out of the blue, though. Summer is slow, people out of town and what-not. Right now I am working on a video for Youtube of the individual comic’s panels with the Kids’ actual voices and, after that, a way for the public to participate; I will explain more when it is ready to go – it’s going to be a while, but it is in the works.
Allen: Thank you Vince. I better let off here. I do not want to run out of questions for other possible interviews with KOWH group. Would you like to leave today with any closing comments about The Kids of Widney High?
Vince: Thanks for your interest in the band and the comic! Visit the website, check us out on Youtube – take care![/size=3]
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