"While L.A. was tiptoeing through the tulips, New York was groovin' and London was electrifying bananas, (The C.A. Quintet) was booking a journey to Hades." So states the Sundazed website (www.sundazed.com) about the band that recorded the legendary psychedelic acid rock 1969 LP, Trip Thru Hell. In addition to contributing trumpet, member Ken Erwin was also responsible for "keeping the loonies on the path."
An Interview With Ken Erwin
60sgaragebands.com (60s): How did you first get interested in music?
Ken Erwin (KE): My first exposure to music was probably as a kid going to the symphony with my parents. But, when my parents got this really big radio with a record player (circa 1955), I discovered and became a fanatic listener to rock and roll. (This was) in the late '50s. I couldn't get enough of Buddy Holly and the rest. My uncle, George "Pee Wee" Erwin, was a very famous jazz-big band trumpet player. He gave me my first lesson on the trumpet. A local judge gave me my first guitar lesson when I was about 13 or so.
60s: Were you primarily a trumpet player, or did you also play guitar while in the C.A. Quintet?
KE: Over the evolution of the bands I played in, I played several things. I started on rhythm guitar, somewhere about the time Jim joined me on bass and we became The C.A. Quintet. I started playing the trumpet in the band; on what songs, I have no idea. It was probably some R&B songs or something. I had been playing the trumpet since I was about ten or so - in school bands - so it was easy to add to the mix.
As a side note, Jim was one hell of a tuba player in high school. I suspect he picked up some bass lines from that experience. When Tom Pohling joined the band, there was no need for me to play guitar anymore, especially with Doug on keyboards - rhythm guitar would probably just add clutter to the sound. I became more of the "front man" for the band, singing and playing trumpet on some songs. It's a long story, but Doug got pulled of stage one night in Duluth by the FBI . He (had gone) AWOL from the marines for a year and played in the band at the time. I feel he did the right thing, but don't know if I should go into detail too much on that. He eventually finished his stint and played again with The C.A. Quintet during the days.
In any event, I was playing keyboards for a month or so after Doug got hauled away, until we could find another keyboard player. I played bass guitar the last few months of The C.A. Quintet. I played guitar again in bands after The C.A. Quintet, but not extensively. In the early '70s I played trombone in a band as well as trumpet and found the trombone was a more natural instrument for me.
60s: What about on the Trip Thru Hell LP?
KE: The only instrument I played on the album was trumpet. All the credit for the instrumentation goes to the other guys. As a side note, one instrument I played extensively in the early '70s was the congas. I was good at them as you (can't) play a wrong note. After leaving the formal music business around 1975, I continued to (and still do) play the 12-string guitar. I also play a bugle off the back porch to wake up the neighbors on occasion when the spirit (or spirits) moves me.
60s: You were in a handful of bands prior to The C.A. Quintet - including Beethoven's Mafia. How long were you in groups prior to the formation of The C.A. Quintet?
KE: It has been a long time, but I think I was in my first band around 1962. It was just a bunch of school friends: Mike Stanke on drums, Coco Brenner on bass, and John Stottlemier on lead guitar. I played rhythm guitar and sang. I started writing music as soon as I started playing guitar. We even played some of (the songs I wrote). We played basement parties and a couple of things at the school. I'm not sure we even had a name for the band. There were other evolutions to this band as people came and went, but eventually my brother joined me on bass and we evolved into The C.A. Quintet.
I am not sure exactly where we took the name "C.A. Quintet" but I do remember a booking agent circa 1966 suggesting we take on the name "The Grateful Dead." He said it was a cool name and he didn't think the group using it on the West Coast at the time would make it...right. My guess is (we became The C.A. Quintet) around 1965 or 1966. Jim could list the members of the band at the time better than I, but as I remember there was Jim on bass, Larry Honhart on lead guitar, Mike ? on keyboards, and Paul Samuels on drums. It was through Paul that we found Tom Pohling and Doug Reynolds, who were playing with a band that was disbanding (Don E and The Coasters). When Tom and Doug joined Jim, Paul and myself - around 1966 - the real, original C.A. Quintet was formed. They obviously brought the ingredients we needed...
60s: Who did name the band? Did it have any special significance?
KE: We never have talked much about how the name came about, (and I'm) not sure what difference it makes. I'm not sure any of us remembers exactly. Who knows? At one time I told people it stood for "Cowboy Acid" or something. Jim and I were involved with the name I am sure. I think the "plainness'" of the name demonstrates how insignificant we felt a name was - maybe that was one of the reasons we never "went national" back then; maybe if we had a more unique name it would have been better "marketing." Maybe we should have put more attention on "commercializing" the band. I guess making music and performing was enough to make us happy.
60s: You've mentioned that you played basement partoes and at schools. What other type of gigs did you regularly play?
KE: Believe it or not, we still have a complete list of most of the places we played - the date and how much we were paid. (They were) mostly local niteclubs, schools, bars, etc.
60s: What about teen clubs?
KE: The teen club was very active in the '60s. The local bands drew such a crowd that "national" acts didn't do all that well until the early '70s.
60s: Did the band ever put on a "psychedelic" show while playing live?
KE: Not intentionally. We wore a lot of wild things and did do a lot of crazy things on stage, but I think we may have been doing them more to entertain ourselves than anything else.
60s: How far out was the band's "touring" territory?
KE: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota were the main "touring" areas. We were suppose to play a job in Michigan one time, but the bus broke down in Wisconsin and we never made it.
60s: How would you describe the band's initital sound?
KE: I am not sure I can put the band's sound in a category. Over the years it has been labeled as Acid Rock. I guess it is no secret that I did acid and other drugs in the late '60s and early '70s, and I guess I can see the reason why (I stopped doing all drugs - except alcohol - around 1974). The C.A. Quintet never purposely intended to make an album of any "type." It just turned out the way it did somehow.
60s: What band's influenced you? Did your influences change much as the band progressed?
KE: I don't think I really point to any one group or person. I have no idea where the music came from. It just felt and sounded good at the time, so we went with it. I personally loved everything from Buddy Holly to Ray Charles to Rafael Mendez to Jackie Gleason to Jimi Hendrix.
60s: Did The C.A. Quintet have a manager?
KE: We never really had a manager. Just booking agents.
60s: How popular locally was The C.A. Quintet able to become?
KE: Well..."popular" is a hard word to define. In those days, and it is still probably much the same, people went to clubs/dances to dance and meet the opposite sex. Most people attending dances did not want a "concert"; they wanted to hear bands play songs they knew and could dance to. That is eventually why I left the business all together. I no longer wanted to be a "flesh and blood juke box". When The C.A. Quintet drifted in the last year to pretty much free form music - much like the album - it was not real successful. We were "more popular" when we first started and played Mickey's Monkey and other commercial type tunes.
60s: The C.A. Quintet recorded three singles.
KE: The first single was the most interesting as we just walked in the studio. Dale Menton was the producer. He walked in and said, "let's just make a hit." We listened to what he said, and Mickey's Monkey was made in about an hour.
60s: What was Dale like? What did you think of his band The Gestures at the time?
Ken: I thought Dale and his group were very talented.
60s: Was it his idea to record Mickey's Monkey as the band's first release?
KE: It was just something we had been doing live and thought it might make a good record.
60s: What about your other singles: Blow To My Soul / She's Got To Be True and Smooth As Silk / Dr. Of Philosophy?
KE: Well I had little to do with Blow To My Soul. It was a Peter Steinberg thing to turn us into a commercial "bubble gum" group. I thought Doug did a real nice job on the vocals. Dr. of Philosophy has always been one of my favorite songs. I think because Philosophy has always been my favorite subject.
60s: Who was Peter Steinberg?
KE: Peter Steinberg was a self appointed record producer who hustled bands and convinced Dove Recording Studios that he could assist them in their business. Now I do not want to sound harsh or bitter - I even kind of got a kick out of Peter - but he was a flim flam man. He preyed on the hopes of talented musicians and got them to believe that he could actually help them make "it big". He had no musical talent of his own but tried at times to "produce" songs. His main objective was to make money for himself. He was the founder of Candy Floss, which was his scheme to manage and produce bands. It was not a good deal for anyone as far as I know, and probably some talent that might have made it never did as a result of his involvement. Now this really sounds critical, I realize, but believe me, I am not bitter or anything; I am just trying to describe the situation (who cares after all this time?). I am sure a lot of musicians and artists have run into people like Peter that had no talent of their own but screwed others over for their own personal gain. Peter was one of those types. The last contact I had with Peter was in 1975. He had just gotten out of jail in New York for something. He learned to play bridge and was now a "bridge expert" and "teaching" bridge. In reality he was and probably still is - if alive - a scam artist. I have no idea where he is now or even if he is still alive. He is the person that stole all the proceeds/royalties from the Trip Thru Hell album - which amounted to about $1200 at the time - from The C.A. Quintet. The joke is really on him. If he would have just tucked one of those albums away, it would have been worth more than the money he stole from us. It is amazing how what goes around comes around...
60s: You received solo songwriting credit for the band's non-covers. How prolific of a writer were you during this time? Did you write many songs that The C.A. Quintet never recorded?
KE: Well, I always liked to write music - even before The C.A. Quintet - but I never felt like I really became the songwriter that I wanted to be until after The C.A. Quintet. I got a better hold of things in the early '70s. Most of what I have written over the years has never been recorded in a studio. It's just me creating tracks out here in the woods with my guitar. Who knows maybe someone will pick them up some day and do something with them? If they don't it is no big deal. My satisfaction comes from the process of creation.
60s: Which of your many songs is your personal favorite?
KE: I like Dr. Of Philosophy on the Sundazed release. It just has a good feel to it and I would love to hear someone else sing Bury Me in a Marijuana Field...but my favorite songs are some that I have written and few people have ever really heard.
60s: The C.A. Quintet recorded the Trip Thru Hell LP in 1969. Where was it recorded?
KE: It was recorded at Dove Studios in Bloomington (a suburb of Minneapolis) Minnesota.
60s: Didn't you also produce the LP? What other roles did have with the band during this time?
KE: I guess you could say I "produced" the album, but I would characterize it more as "editor" - what to leave in, what to leave out - but everything was discussed and the group really was in consensus about things. I never had to play the "heavy hand". Keeping the "loonies on the path" was my job.
60s: What was a typical recording session like?
KE: Recording and playing on the road with these guys was like "herding squirrels": Chaos, laughing, goofing around; it was hard for me at times to get the group focused on things. But then when they did focus - they really focused. The most difficult task I had was to get this bunch of loonies and the equipment on the bus and to the jobs on time. We had no manager, so I had to be the hard ass at times. It took some of the fun out of it for me.
60s: How did the rest of the band relate to you as producer? Any differently?
KE: I didn't realize I was the "producer" until after the album was made. No one ever called me "the producer." They called me a few other names at times...but we were just all a bunch of kids having fun.
60s: I've read that Trip Thru Hell, despite popular conjecture, was not inspired by acid and/or drugs. What was the inspiration, then, for the LP?
KE: The fun of creating something unique with a bunch of really, really talented people. Sorry to disappoint some people, but I never did drugs until after the album was made. Maybe some of us are naturally "fried". To me the inspiration was simply to create something that we would enjoy.
60s: Do any (other) '60's C.A. Quintet recordings exist? Are there any vintage live recordings?
KE: No live recordings - except the last night which was a very poor technical recording. We just laid two mics on the floor and there were only four members in the band by then (NOTE: These recordings date from 1971, and were released as C.A. Quintet Live).
60s: Did the band make any local TV appearances? Does any 8mm or 16mm film footage exist of the band?
KE: There is no footage that I am aware of.
60s: When and why did the band break?
KE: At the end the members were by then Tom Pohling on guitar, Don Chapin on drums, Doug Reynolds (back from the marines on keyboard) and me(filling in on bass guitar - playing at a level not even close to what Jim did). We were burning out from drugs, alcohol, traveling and we were not matched up with audiences that wanted to hear what we were doing.
60s: What type of reaction did you typically receive?
KE: Towards the end of The C.A. Quintet, playing in the band stopped being fun for us and became a job. Playing cover songs at proms and high school dances was all we could see on the road ahead. Our original music wasn't wanted by the average teenager in rural Midwest America in the late '60s, and we were getting tired of being a "live juke box" playing other people's music. We found we had gone down a self created "trip thru Hell" playing cover songs for "teeny-boppers," who were not into music the way we were. We did not fault them for being what they were - there just was no connection between them and us. In the back of our mind, we knew there was an audience for our music out there somewhere, but we weren't able to - and probably didn't have the desire - to market ourselves or make a connection to the audience that liked the music on our album...where ever it was. Maybe we felt like we would be "selling out" or something if we were to market ourselves like so many others had done. Maybe if we had had some management with some professional connections it would have been different. It might have allowed us to play our music and build on it - but that didn't happen so most of us just got high and played for the money. Eventually even the money was not enough to make it worth the effort, so we went our separate ways.
60s: Was the band billed as a "psychedelic band" after the LP? Or still as a dance band?
KE: We were not billed as anything - just as The C.A. Quintet. In the early days we were billed as "of Mickey's Monkey fame"...which we stopped playing along the way somewhere. In retrospect, it was a lot of fun in the early days playing places like small bars where the crowd danced. It was fresh and new to us.
60s: What year did the band call it quits?
KE: Well... it is a little fuzzy. The night we laid the mics on the floor at Pepin High school in Pepin, Wisconsin was that last night, but I found a list that I must have typed up somewhere along the way. Here are some dates:
May 1966 - First recorded entry playing as C.A. Quintet, University of Minnesota
November 1966 - Doug Reynolds and Tom Pohling joined the band
February 1967 - Recorded Mickey's Monkey
Summer 1967 - Mickey's Monkey on the radio
1970 - Last year C.A. Quintet was together
60s: Did you play with any bands after The C.A. Quintet disbanded?
KE: I played with a show band in New York in the early '70s playing music from the '30s an '40s. I then (moved) on to a very good house band back in Minnesota called Gangbusters. We played cover music from groups like the Stones, Chicago, etc. Eventually I got tired of playing other people's music to make a living and quit the business altogether.
60s: What about today? Do you perform at all?
KE: I never pursued a "career". I did a bunch of "jobs" to support a family after leaving the music industry. I taught college, was a programmer, did a 13 year "sentence" as a corporate marketing manager for a large corporation, then dropped back out of the rat race and started my own small company in the country. So far I have been lucky enough to survive without working too hard and (still) have time to enjoy life (and do interviews).
60s: What are your thoughts regarding all the interest the band and the LP has received in the years since the band folded? Could you ever have imagined?
KE: Well, to be honest with you, I am not all that much in touch with the music scene - so I am not really aware of the scope of the interest in the LP. But, the interest that I have become aware of is, as I see it, a nice tribute to the guys that really made this album. They played the instruments - especially to Tom Pohling who passed away last year. He created some magic moments. Never in my wildest imaginations did I think there would be any interest in the album so many years after we made it. I guess a big thanks goes to the people out there that found a copy of it, played it, liked it and mentioned it to others. They kept the "trip" going.
60s: How do you best summarize your experiences with The C.A. Quintet?
KE: If someone had the power to come up to me and say you can have 100 million dollars to give up the time you spent with The C.A. Quintet...I'd say, "keep the money." It is really true that there are some things that money just can't buy. In fact, in my opinion, most things that make life worth living.
Ken Erwin Listens Again to Thru Thru Hell: January 2004
Maybe I might be the dumbest guy around ...but after listening to this thing again after so many years have gone by ...I noticed something that most others have probably already figured that out. Isn't it kind of interesting that the music on the Trip Thru Hell album has no "sappy love songs" or any other "boy-girl relationship" type songs on it? The songs are about other subjects ...but that would make sense looking back on it from the standpoint of what we were trying to create.
This at a time when 90% of the songs were about "true love", "broken hearts", "sugar sugar" and "baby baby baby." I have to laugh as I am sure 30 years later, the song writers of that age would prefer to hear a song about something else. Maybe if we had put some "silly love songs" on there, we would have gone further. I personally am very glad we didn't.
Be sure to visit the band's official website at http://caquintet.com/index.html
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