Jonny Bowler is probably most well known for being the long time upright bass player and drummer for psychobilly favourites the Guana Batz, and of course, Klub Foot originals, Get Smart.
For many years now Jonny Bowler has carved out a musical career for himself in the USA, playing for a huge variety of bands and well known names.
I caught up with Jonny recently in his hometown of Palm Springs on the eve of a full weekend of gigging. The first night he played with the Guana Batz at Lake Havasu Rockabilly festival, followed by a night with Lance Lewinsky for his Rock n Roll show in Vegas, then ending up at Pala Casino as part of a tribute show to Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In this feature interview, Jonny shares his early musical memories and influences, talks about some of the bands that he’s played with, right up to the most recent residency in Las Vegas!
Jonny Bowler – Early Musical Influences
Like most of us, Jonny’s early musical tastes were influenced by school friends and the songs that were being played at home. Luckily for those of us born in the 1960s, our parents were still playing Rock n Roll from the 50s and 60s.
Jonny Bowler: “I remember this guy David playing Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols on a cassette player in the boy’s toilet at school. It was probably not long after it was released. I was blown away.
The power, energy, and feeling on that album hadn’t been heard for a long time. I think that’s what makes it such a timeless recording, the same way a lot of early rockabilly did. That was the link. The feeling, the raw energy and emotion.
Music for me up until that point had been whatever was on the radio. Sunday lunches with Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Elvis on the radio. That, in my mind, was the beginning that helped me end up playing the music that I’m still playing now.”
Jonny Bowler – Drums and Upright Bass
Jonny plays both drums and upright bass live and in the studio. I wondered which came first and how he first started learning to play.
Jonny Bowler: “I started playing the snare drum in a Boys Brigade marching band when I was about 9 or 10. It was my first instrument which then led to a “Heinz 57” drum set bought from a friend at senior school, I was maybe 14 or 15 then.
My neighbour at that time was a music teacher. I think she was fed-up listening to me practice drums every day and suggested I tried the double bass. The school was selling theirs and I grabbed it for £100.
Having self-taught the drums listening to Eddie Cochran, Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols, I then moved on to the upright bass. The same technique as the drums, listening to favourite records over and over until I got it right. Early Sun Records, Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Johnny Burnette etc. All the classics. That sound from the bass, driving and solid, was what got me I think.”
Jonny Bowler’s Early Bands in the 1980s – Get Smart
Jonny Bowler: “The first band I played in never got out of the garage apart from one gig in a friend’s kitchen at a house party. It was just friends playing together, but I definitely got the bug.
The second band was a 3 piece with school friends. We went on to become The Steam Kings. We had a couple of actual gigs. One was in my local pub before I was old enough to actually “legally” be in a pub. The second at a college Battle of the Bands type show. I was drumming in those.
I didn’t get my first upright bass until I was 17 or 18. I began practicing at home. I got my first gig when a local band’s bass player couldn’t make it. I think I was the only other person in Southampton with a double bass. That was my in! It wasn’t at all good at that point, but it was enough to make me realise that it may be worth the effort.
That band kind of morphed into Get Smart after a few line-up changes. We busked a lot around the south coast and occasionally got the train up to London and played around Camden and Covent Garden. That led to gig offers, and we soon started playing fairly regularly.
Our first Klub Foot gig came after The Highliners recommended us when they couldn’t make it one night. We would often bump into them in Bournemouth when we were down there busking. Our first show was as the support band to Restless.
We got an album offer that night from Roy William of Nervous Records. I think I still have a cheque for £1.30 somewhere that I didn’t cash. I’m pretty sure that’s all I ever saw from that album, but it was fun and started me off.
Jonny Bowler – The Caravans, Frantic Flintstones & Guana Batz
Jonny Bowler: “I had sat in with The Caravans a few times when needed, either on drums or bass depending on who was unable to make a show. That led eventually to a full time position with them for a few years and a few albums.
It also led to my Guana Batz offer. Stuart called Mark Pennington from The Caravans after Diddle said he was leaving to ask if Lee Barnett (the drummer) would be interested in joining the Batz. Lee said no due to other commitments and Mark suggested me, and there you are!
One audition was enough to get the job. I remember there was a postal strike then in the UK. Stuart sent me a cassette of the set to learn. I didn’t get it until the morning I was leaving. Luckily, I had a Walkman and an hour and a half train ride! I learnt the songs and got the job.”
Weren’t you in The Frantic Flintstones shortly after this too?
Jonny Bowler: “I did about 3 or 4 albums with The Caravans and a bunch of shows around the late 80s/early 90s. I really enjoyed Mark’s writing and the change from playing drums with the Batz. I think I was missing it.
I also did a few albums and shows with the Frantic Flintstones. I always got on well with Chuck and we’re still good friends although I don’t get to see him that much.
I think my first show for them was at the Dublin Castle on a Saturday afternoon and Chuck’s ‘release’. I didn’t have time to learn the set. Pug was wasted, and Chuck was perhaps over celebrating slightly too. Needless to say, it was a mess, but things definitely got better.
I did some of the most interesting and more experimental bass work with them. Some of my more memorable shows. There’s a few I have no memory of either! Chuck’s a hard guy to keep up with but I did my best!”
Guana Batz –End of the 1980s Klub Foot Psychobilly Era
Although mainland Europe was enjoying a hive of activity, the UK psychobilly scene took a nose dive towards the end of the 1980s. This seemed largely due to the closure of the Klub Foot in London, although infrequent gigs were still happening up and down the country.
In the early 1990s, Pip Hancox, frontman for the Guana Batz, decided to settle in California. The band didn’t split up as such but Batz shows obviously became more sporadic in the UK and Europe.
Jonny Bowler: “Around this time Pip got married and headed off to America. We had the farewell show at The Marquee which was fun. A lot of the old faces and Guana Batz followers who had been off the scene for years showed up. Old road crew, guys who were at the early shows, people I hadn’t met. Diddle and Sam were there both got up to play. Pip said his goodbyes and that was it for a while.
The Guana Batz lineup had another shuffle and I ended up back on bass which I think has always been my favourite. I remember Ant from Demented Are Go getting very upset. He told me I was too good a drummer and should stick to the drums. I always thought I did a passable job but never really considered myself a real drummer.
Stuart Osborne and I went off to the States for a handful of shows in September ‘96. John Buck (The Polecats) was drumming for us at that point and couldn’t make it so Woodie came along and did a great job. I didn’t make it back!”
Jonny Bowler – The Californian Psychobilly & Rockabilly Scene 1990s
Jonny Bowler: “Pip promised shows and fortune in California. The wasn’t really a psychobilly scene over there at that point. I went to see the Reverend Horton Heat play the Belly Up in Solana Beach near San Diego and got a lot of attention because of my Guana Batz t-shirt, a rare sighting over there at that time.
Pip Hancox and I had a few shows. Local stuff, mainly to friends, but didn’t really get outside the San Diego area. Stu came over for one or two, and we also used local people.
A couple of years after being in America, I joined The 13 Cats with Tim Polecat, Slim Jim Phantom and Danny B Harvey. Tim told John Buck he was having a problem finding someone to replace Smutty and John suggested me. I’d met Tim years before at the Polecats’ shows when I’d played with The Caravans. The 13 Cats was a fun band, playing to an emerging scene around LA.
Pip and I had a few shows with Slim Jim and Danny as The Guana Cats. My idea was to let fans hear some Stray Cats, Guana Batz and Rockats’ songs played by members of those bands. Jim wouldn’t rehearse though and I didn’t want to play the same old shitty covers over and over again, so that didn’t last.”
“I continued to work with Danny with other acts. I played and recorded with Wanda Jackson through Danny. He also got me on The Head Cat DVD. It only lasted the one show because Lemmy thought I moved around and slapped too much. I thought that was what I was supposed to do!
I did a couple of albums for a fun San Diego band The Barnyard Ballers. I played for Levi Dexter a fair amount. I had some great gigs with The Polecats when Phil couldn’t make it. I remember how cool it was to be playing for a band that inspired me before I even picked a bass up.”
Rockabilly and Psychobilly in the USA 2000s – SoCal Scene LA
Jonny Bowler: “After a while, we got a pretty steady lineup for the Guana Batz in the States and started playing more shows – mainly festivals and weekenders, but also quite a few club dates. The scene was starting to pick up over here.
There was obviously a much younger, mainly Mexican audience in and around LA. Festivals like the Hootenanny, Ink n Iron and Musink had helped develop a strong following for psychobilly and rockabilly.
I think people appreciated the chance to see one of the early UK acts play. Bands like Demented, Mad Sin and the Flintstones made it over fairly regularly. Kim had moved over from Europe to LA and the Nekromantix and Horrorpops helped a lot to build things. Tiger Army and the Rev pushed the audience by playing bigger festivals like the Warped Tour and opening up the music to a much wider crowd.”
Guana Batz and Psychobilly Resurrection of the 2000s UK & Europe
So the new millennium kicked in, and Guana Batz shows started to happen with more frequency in Europe. Jonny has alternated between playing the drums and upright bass in Europe, but always the bass in the US. I wondered which instrument he preferred.
Jonny Bowler: “Meanwhile, Guana Batz started playing more frequently in Europe again. Festivals and short tours became something we would do 2, 3 or 4 times a year. Speedfreaks in the UK and the Satanic Stomp and Just For Fun in Europe really started to build things again for us. It was nice to go back and see all the old familiar faces come out for shows and it really became more of a party atmosphere at Guana Batz gigs.
We had an issue one year when headed out to play in Europe. John Buck, who was still with us at that point, couldn’t make the shows, so our US drummer Alex came out for the weekend. Pip and I went through customs at Heathrow with our UK passports, but Alex got detained because he didn’t have a work visa!
Luckily, Billy Oxley from Epileptic Hillbillys knew the Guana Batz set well enough to sit in on drums for a memorable show the first night in Stockport. We were still stuck for a drummer for the Satanic Stomp in Germany though, which we were headlining Saturday.
I figured that mistakes are a lot more noticeable on the drums than the bass and decided the best plan would be to find a bass player for the show and I’d get back behind the drums. I think it was something like 15 years since I’d last played! But it worked. It was also a lot easier to carry a stick bag with me than to worry about a bass. Being left handed has always made things interesting, make that problematic.
So, after finding Choppy and having him fill in for that Stomp show we figured why not keep it that way for the Europe gigs. I kind of liked the chance to play drums again and still played the upright bass in America. It’s hard to say which I prefer. I feel that I’m a better bass player than a drummer, but my drumming fits the Guana Batz and I really enjoy driving the band from back there.”
Psychobilly UK vs Europe vs USA
Having visited the States a few times for gigs and festivals, I’ve noticed the scenes are very different. One noticeable fact being that they don’t seem to plan so far in advance as we do in the UK. They will often start advertising a gig with a couple of weeks’ notice, yet still, the shows seem to be generally well attended. I guess they are more laid back in California.
Without asking him to state a preference, I asked Jonny to tell us how else the psychobilly and rockabilly scenes differ in the US and Europe.
Jonny Bowler: “There’s a difference between US and European shows. There’s also a difference between the UK and mainland European shows.
There’s a strong feeling of friendship and almost family at the UK shows. People have been behind the band for a long time. Through relationships, marriages, kids, divorce, death and just life in general, I guess. I think that builds a special bond.
Europe has the same to an extent, but perhaps not quite the same familiarity.
America has a much younger scene and crowd generally. The audience comes and goes, perhaps still finding themselves. They also have that weird “washing machine” pit which I don’t think we’ll ever get used to!”
Jonny Bowler – Heartbreak Hotel, Las Vegas 2019
Over the years, Jonny has maintained his life as a working musician in the USA, with generally one or two tours a year in Europe. He and his wife Nina, have lived in San Diego, Los Angeles, and more recently, Palm Springs.
In early 2019, Jonny got the news that all musicians must long to hear – a year long residency in Las Vegas. The Heartbreak Hotel show that Jonny has rehearsed for previously, was finally going live at Harrah’s Casino in Las Vegas.
Jonny Bowler: “It’s hard to pay the bills just playing for one band when perhaps the whole band isn’t as into playing or have other jobs or commitments. I’ve had to take work where I can find it over the years and have been fortunate to keep fairly busy.
I started playing a lot of casino shows with Buzz Campbell (Hot Rod Lincoln, Lee Rocker) and that opened me up to learning a much wider repertoire and more regular work. I picked up work with a Million Dollar Quartet tribute show called Presley, Perkins, Lewis and Cash. It took me all over the States and Canada, and really became my main source of income.
That, in turn, led to an opportunity to start rehearsals for a Million Dollar Quartet prequel based on Elvis’ early years at Sun Records. Nina and I packed and moved to LA to fit the schedule.
It’s often a long and complicated process getting a show like that up and running and in that downtime, we moved from LA out to Palm Springs.
In January of this year, I had a show booked with Eddie Clendening who had played Elvis in the Broadway version of Million Dollar Quartet at the Rhythm Collision in Riverside, Ca. He asked me if I fancied playing Las Vegas. I figured it was just another show, but it turns out the show we were rehearsing for in LA had been picked up and would be running at Harrah’s Casino.
I just signed a year’s contract and we’re in the process of packing up and moving out to Las Vegas for the next chapter in our lives.
I’m really excited about this project and looking forward to getting my teeth into the role. It’s basically going to be a set of early Elvis tunes, played as close to the originals as we can.”
Jonny Bowler and Guana Batz
As you will have read, Jonny has played with a huge selection of bands and musicians over the years but he is most well known for being in the Guana Batz, on both sides of the pond. In fact, he’s been in the band for 31 years! With news of Heartbreak Hotel, I’m sure many of you will be wondering what this means for Jonny’s place in the Guana Batz now.
Jonny Bowler: “Obviously the commitment needed for the show means I’ll be stepping back from the Guana Batz for a year or so. Jared Hren who drums for us over here will be playing all the European shows that I can’t make, and Victor Mendez from the Rhythm Shakers will be covering me on bass in the US.”
Jonny’s last show with the Guana Batz in the USA will be at Punk Rock Bowling on Thursday 23rd May 2019. Luckily that is located in Las Vegas so Jonny will be able to perform one more time after hotfooting it over from Heartbreak Hotel.
I’d like to thank Jonny for taking the time out to do this interview and I’m sure you’ll all join me in wishing him all the best in his new venture.
What bands have you seen Jonny Bowler play with, and what have been your favourite performances? Leave your memories in the comment box below.