Monkey see, Monkey do

“Whatever gets people off is what gets me off,” is Todd Horn’s altruistic view of his regionally famous band’s wild gigs.

This vague (and vaguely combustible) statement seems somehow appropriate to the Spider Monkey frontman. With his boyish manner and flirtatious evasion of duty (at one point during a recent phone interview, he seemed more eager to discuss my favorite bands than answer questions about his own), the St. Augustine, Fla.-based singer doesn’t seem quite the type to seriously dissect his musical motivations. (The band’s press release describes their music as simply “hard-edged pop/modern rock,” and that’s as good a description as any of Spider Monkey’s straightforward, high-energy pop/rock sound.)

Spider Monkey’s also known as one of the hardest-working indie bands around. Through constant touring and the formation of their own record company (the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Ambassador Records), this gang of transplanted Ohioans (including Randy Looman on drums and Tony Gialluca on bass, plus lone Florida native Garrett Coleman on guitar) has garnered a loyal Southeastern following that’s had them opening for such ueber-acts as Coolio, Hootie and the Blowfish and Widespread Panic. At various points in their six-year career, they’ve been featured in a Burdines department store ad campaign, boasted steady airplay on a host of regional radio stations, and outsold such popular alterna-bands as Belly and Bad Brains, when the three groups (each billed at a different venue) appeared the same night in Isle of Palms, S.C.

So why is Spider Monkey — so perfectly poised for major success — still waiting in the wings?

“We never went to [the record companies]; we waited for everyone to come to us,” Horn explains. Not that their own label is lacking, particularly in the merchandising department. The shameless insert tucked into their latest CD, Insatiable (Ambassador Records, 1997), advertises everything from racing-striped T-shirts and wool toboggans — adorned, naturally, with the jaunty Spider Monkey logo — to thoughtully presoiled gas-station-attendant shirts. Indeed, the sheer amount of gear offered suggests that this band can’t be doing too badly for itself, unsigned or not.

And regional success has definitely whetted the band’s taste for superstardom.

“The mistake we made was going out and playing all the time, instead of working more on [original] songs,” Horn laments. “We’ve got a producer now [who] totally makes us work on songwriting.”

Their new taskmaster has Spider Monkey approaching the craft with a more professional eye — a ploy sure to lead to an imminent breakthrough, Horn believes.

“The way we write songs is so much different now; we’re sitting down and diagramming each part, instead of just rolling them out,” he explains, a little wearily. “You have to hit a total grand-slam [song] to get on a major label, and all we’ve hit so far is triples.”

In the beginning, Spider Monkey’s funk-edged tunes drew comparisons to such solidly alternative bands as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Horn has no qualms about admitting his group’s forays across arena-rock boundaries.

“Now [we’re into] more cock-rock groups, like the old Van Halen,” says Horn — a comparison he suffers gladly. “We always wanted this band to get as big as it could possibly get, [with] total, undeniable radio hits. People can claim sellout all they want, but there’s nothing wrong with radio hits. Everyone likes them, until they get sick of them.”

Well, at least he’s honest about it.

Despite the new emphasis on hit-building, however, Spider Monkey’s rep is still tied to the decidedly less-civilized monster they’ve created — their signature live performances.

“When we get up there, it’s like our alter egos,” he explains. “We get a little drunk, get a little out of hand and obnoxious. There’s always a chance for nudity,” he promises. “I’ve had my shorts ripped off me, and there [have] been naked girls, or some guy will get up, take off all his clothes, and jump into the audience. It’s usually pretty wild. Sometimes, we’ll catch part of a building on fire, and that’s usually pretty exciting.” (That latter phenomenon may have Stella Blue owners thinking twice about booking the band, since the club has already weathered one fire in its short history.)

And though Spider Monkey has played before crowds of up to 15,000, the band’s big ambitions don’t prevent them from enjoying smaller venues.

“Of course I love the festivals, where a lot of people don’t know us,” Horn admits. “I really love putting on a show. When people are familiar with us already, I don’t have to work as hard, but [with a new crowd] I get more fired up, because I want to shock them. But I like the smaller clubs, too. They’re more intimate; the crowd is right there at face level — or rather, crotch level.”

Ahem. Given this perspective, it’s not hard to imagine Spider Monkey enjoying eventual cock-rock-star status.

In the meantime, however, their fans still come first, Horn insists. And any fine-tuned formula for success is definitely subject to audience approval.

“If we play something live and it doesn’t go off, we don’t play it anymore,” he concludes cheerfully.


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