If our lives could read like chapters in a novel, we would find most characters in the story have a few key paragraphs before fading away into the pulp.
However, true friends remain an anchor regardless of what happens on the next page. Most people are lucky if they find a person on the same wavelength as time passes. To borrow a lyric from the comedic duo Tenacious D, “Friendship is rare.”
That rarity birthed a cultural fascination with iconic films following two best friends navigating through trials and tribulations. Although most of us won’t take on entire television network like Wayne and Garth or careen into the Grand Canyon like Thelma and Louise, simply being there for each other is enough.
The Fine Winos, a local Rock duo, are an example of that friendship. Combining elements of Alternative, Funk, Blues and R&B, their self-titled debut album is the culmination of a long-standing bond forged through late night gigs around Los Angeles.
Comprised of guitarist and singer Eric Slater and drummer/instrumentalist Johnny Z, they first crossed paths in the late ’90s during a Schooner’s Battle of The Bands gig.
“We were in two separate bands playing against each other,” Johnny Z said. “We found that we were both huge Funk-Rock fans. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, etc. That was hard to come by at the time and we built a band around that called The Bomb Squad.”
Through several different iterations over the following six or seven years, the band went through several name changes, won a local band competition and released three albums.
“We ended up teaming up with a fantastic group from LA called Gram of Sugar who had this really sensational female vocalist, Darcie Rae-Frazier,” Slater said. “At the time my father, Alan Slater, was representing us. Their manager called Alan and said the band was splitting up. We were moving on from different singers and they put us together with Darcie.”
Upon joining forces with Frazier, they released two albums, including “Off Limits,” via a local record label, Wonderland Records. As the 2000s rolled in, the duo organically went their separate ways. Amicably allowing each other to grow, Slater explored solo songwriting ambitions while Johnny Z hit the Blues and Country circuit.
Over the next 15 years, the two kept their friendship alive while pursuing different goals. As fate would have it, a live performance would prove to be the unexpected catalyst for them reuniting.
“I was doing a solo performance in 2019,” Slater said. “The drummer I was working with wasn’t able make it. Johnny and I had been talking more about getting creative again. He came on that gig and we had a blast. It felt like the right time.”
Like no time had passed, the duo began having lengthy conversations about what type of project they would embark on. Wanting to retain full creative control of the project, Slater and Johnny Z would handle all of the vocals, songwriting and the majority of instrumentation. Guest musicians on the project included Joel Hill and JT Thomas (Bruce Hornsby) on keys and Marc Macisso on saxophone.
The 11 tracks on “Fine Winos” represents a mosaic of influences between Slater and Johnny Z. “Fortune and Fame” and “Now Ain’t the Time” hearken back to their Bluesy-Funk Rock roots while “Haunts My Mind” and “Justice” add a balance to the record with Hendrix-like soulful ballads.
Having studied at the Los Angeles Recording School, Johnny Z would use his knowledge to guide the recording process, as well. Commencing the first session in January 2020, an unexpected curveball was thrown into the mix as pandemic shutdowns loomed.
“We went from thinking we’d be working out of this nice, professional setting Johnny had helped build in Santa Clarita, had turned into us creating this in garages,” Slater said. “It was totally guerrilla. We were writing this album through Dropbox, pre-producing over the phone and sometimes, tracking drums without the other person there in a different garage.”
Johnny Z further elaborated on these creative conditions.
“Wherever a track was cut, that’s where the studio was built that day,” he said. “There was no luxury where we could say, ‘Let’s cut 10 drum tracks today without moving microphones.’ ”
Despite three years of delays and setbacks, Johnny Z and Slater had faith in each other; the fruits of their labor realized upon the album’s release in February 2023.
“In my years of creating music, there’s this magic area that relies on vulnerability and trust,” Slater said. “At the foundation of this, Johnny and I through many years of doing battle together, have this respect for one another. That respect allows us to not be afraid to try things, experiment and even have bad ideas on our journey to get the great ideas.”
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