Interview: Girl Trouble’s Bon Von Wheelie chats with NWMS

Photo credit – Tim Olsen

For anyone not yet hip to Girl Trouble, know this first: You don’t have to be hip to dig Girl Trouble! They want everyone to be kind, respectful, and get down to a rockin’ time. These seemingly-modest aims took them from their Tacoma roots to all over the map, and their own movie, even.

Drummer Bon Von Wheelie and guitarist The Big Kahuna, aka just Kahuna, knew each other from a very early age, growing up under the same roof in Grit City while they went under their slightly-less punk rock names of Bonnie and Bill Henderson. The siblings found bassist Dale Phillips (the quiet one) and frontman KP Kendall (the bare-chested one) circa 1984, and the rest is emphatically rock’n’roll.

Celebrating 35 years in the business, they decided to throw themselves a party in down in their pond, Tacoma’s Fawcett Hall at Alma Mater, on Saturday March 9th. Each band member picked some local talent to play with, forming four Girl Trouble tribute bands featuring one actual Girl Trouble member each (details below)—climaxing, of course, with the band itself taking the stage. Bon was kind enough to take some questions.

NWMS: When you started 35 years ago, did you and the other three have any notion you’d be standing and rocking after all these years?

Bon Von Wheelie: When we started out, I think our main focus was trying to play a song from start to finish. We didn’t really give the future of the band much thought other than we had some ideas of what we’d like to do (make a record, play some shows, open for bands we liked).

I think we felt that if we were still getting along, doing something that interested us and having a good time, why stop? I think to get along for all these years is pretty unique. I will admit that 35 years creeps up on you faster than you’d think.

NWMS: Do you distinctly remember anything about the first house party the band played?

Bon Von Wheelie: Even though we date our band from the first real show we played (Ft. Steilacoom Community College), we did play a small house party or two probably a couple of months before that. I remember us playing a “show” at the 56th Street House in Tacoma. There were probably about 25 people there. Jim May came in and said they were going to get beer over at the Safeway across the street and it cleared everybody out. One or two of our friends stayed to hear us. We were no match for a beer run.

NWMS: You recalled that in the ‘80s it was dangerous for Tacoma folk to dress punk. Did all the punks know each other? Did you and/or anyone you know get beaten up by heshers?

Bon Von Wheelie: Since Tacoma was a working-class town the people here weren’t really open to anything new, including punk rock hairdos and clothing. It is almost unbelievable to think about that now but for some reason it made people so mad they’d go after anybody who dared to look even a little out of the norm (which was baggy flare jeans and feathered hair). Having tight pants and a short haircut could get you in a fight faster than anything.

All of the punk kids had to deal with it. I know people who got chased on a regular basis (Kahuna and KP have some stories) and threatened by guys driving big trucks. I remember somebody getting hammers thrown at them! I mean, who has hammers to throw? It was always the “rockers” against the punks.

Some nights groups of them would just come by the 56th Street house to start fights. I remember one particular night when the house was packed with a party. The rockers came over to start trouble but were a little shocked when 30 or more people came streaming out of the house. There was a big fight out in the Safeway parking lot but it didn’t amount to much when the rockers saw they were outnumbered. This did make all the punks band together. All the kids in the South, Tacoma and Olympia, knew each other and hung out together.

NWMS: You started playing drums so you could be in the band. Do you have any particular drum idols, folks that influenced you?

Bon Von Wheelie: When I was young of course I loved the Beatles and Ringo in particular. I just thought the idea of making your hands and arms all do something different would be impossible. But when I saw the Rolling Stones on TV I loved the drumming of Charlie Watts. He was so clean and straightforward. I loved anything with a beat. I went to tons of shows as a teenager and the drummers were always my favorites.

I saw Nick Knox of The Cramps and I was sold. His drum style was just what I wanted to try. I saw my brother and his friends all trying to form bands but nobody ever had money for a drum set. So I just bought one and started practicing. “Hey, need a drum set? Well, I come with it.” Soon my brother (Kahuna) and I just played for fun. Then we thought it would be cool to have a bass so Kahuna’s school friend, Dale Phillips, started joining in. We convinced KP Kendall to join us after a bit of coaxing.

NWMS: You’ve always spoken against pay-to-play, and in 2010 the band survived a lawsuit from a production company over your comments on that subject. Is pay-to-play still a serious problem? Any other rip-off moves that young bands should be aware of?

Bon Von Wheelie: In the 2000s pay-to-play was taking over the music scene. Even in a place like the Pacific Northwest where DIY had been so strong (we put on our own shows, ran clubs, made record labels, etc) suddenly these young bands were being told that to “make it” they had to sell tickets for these horrible shows where an out of town promoter took the money. It was awful and I felt like somebody should be telling these kids about it so I did.

In the process I (and they cleverly sued the entire band) got hit with a lawsuit from a really prolific company called Gorilla Productions (later changed to Gorilla Music). Those lawsuits are filed not necessarily to win, but with the idea that the person being sued will be so intimidated, they will shut up and never speak out again. So I fought them. All three of my band members, even though they were wrongly listed in the lawsuit, backed me up. It took a year and a half and a lot of lawyer work from my attorney Wade Neal (of Seaweed fame!) but we finally won a judgment where we didn’t have to go to Ohio for a trial.

The next step would have been for Gorilla to come to Washington state and sue us. They never did. They knew they’d lose. It cost a lot of money but I was glad I fought them.

After several years Gorilla ended up folding. They sold off all their office furniture and old cell phones that their agents had used to book all those pay-to-play shows. I have to admit it was gratifying but I also thought about what a waste that lawsuit was.

With Gorilla going out of business and quite a few of the big companies follow their lead, pay-to-play is way down. There are still a few little companies and one big one that focuses on hip-hop more than rock. But the days of several companies hosting 6 shows a week seem to be gone, for now anyway. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, the big one being that their pyramid scheme just dried up. They couldn’t sustain the amount of new bands needed to make these shows profitable. Plus the fact that I think bands finally figured out (maybe from reading my website and others that are out there) what a ripoff this is. Whatever the reason, I’m glad it’s slowed down to a pathetic crawl. I wish the rap/hip hop crowd would
get the same message.

I tell new bands that the most important thing is to find people you like, who you get along with, and try to make some music. Don’t think about fame and fortune. That will kill you. If you aren’t having fun in the practice space there’s no way getting more popular will make it better. And like the old saying, if what somebody is telling you sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So do your research.

NWMS: You’ve seen the release of a full-length documentary on the band. How did that come about? What were your thoughts on the finished film?

Bon Von Wheelie: Isaac Olsen, nephew to Kahuna and me, is a filmmaker. He decided that we would be a good topic to do a documentary about partly because we never throw anything away. As somebody interested in archiving stuff, he knew we had so much old video, posters, photos gathering dust, it would be easy to find most everything he needed. Plus, he’d grown up with us. His dad Tim Olsen has been our producer for all the records we’ve ever put out.

It’s a family thing with us. We probably wouldn’t have allowed anyone else to do this but Isaac was so persistent and he knew we couldn’t say no to him. I didn’t really think we were that interesting but then we do have a few good stories about Granny Go-Go (the legendary go-go dancer who we got to perform with us and then KP Kendall took care of) and then the lawsuit story was pretty good.

We were really happy with the result. It’s called “Strictly Sacred: The Story of Girl Trouble” and it premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival. It was an interesting experience to be in the sold-out theater with all of your friends (some who were also in the movie) watching the story of your band and family. But they were great about it and it got a good reception.

Of course it’s tough to watch yourself but Isaac’s editing is really amazing. I think it moves along really well and is different from a lot of other rock docs I’ve seen. We were really proud of what a great job he’d done. Isaac also put out a DVD with all these extras and commentaries. Those are pretty funny.

NWMS: You also mentioned a few years back that the band was also involved in a low-budget dramatic film. Did that ever get finished? What was the film’s story and what did the band do for it?

Bon Von Wheelie: That was called “Quiet Shoes” and it was sort of Isaac and KP Kendall’s brainchild. They both had wanted to do a film-noir style whodunnit. This was before the Girl Trouble documentary. So with practically no budget they got family and friends to appear in this movie.

It took years of weekend after weekend of filming scenes. Our bass player, Dale Phillips, is the star of the show and he’s really great. They really ran their ‘stars’ ragged. Lots of action. Everybody got parts. They showed it at the Rialto in Tacoma and people loved it. Girl Trouble kind of took a back seat during that time because everybody was busy on the movie. But since it was still a creative endeavor, we still feel that we were moving along. Isaac had DVDs and he probably still has a few.

NWMS: You’ve assembled four, count ’em four, Girl Trouble bands for the occasion! Who all’s in all the different bands and what do you enjoy about those folks?

Bon Von Wheelie: So we’ve been kicking this idea around for a few years now. We see all those bands coming to the casinos around here. It’s always one [original] person, and some other random musicians. We kept talking about how funny and fun it would be to try this…like we would need to do it when we finally have had enough of each other and want to move on (like that would ever happen!).

Finally we decided that now, for the 35th anniversary, is the time to try it out. For our 35th anniversary there was no way we could have picked two or three bands out of the hundreds of amazing bands (and good friends) we’ve played with over the years. How could we pick one band and not another? We figured that forming our own bands to open for ourselves would solve the problem and also be interesting.

I don’t think any other bands have tried this. If we are good or we fall flat on our faces, it will still be entertaining. So our rule is that we have to play the spot we normally play in Girl Trouble and we will play four songs (three GT originals and one GT cover). It’s crazy but none of us picked the same musicians to play with. In fact, when we picked the songs, we all picked separate songs too. We mostly went with other musicians from Tacoma since that is easier for practicing and we thought it was a good idea to keep it local.

The four bands are:

Kahuna’s All-Girl Tribute to Girl Trouble with Mara Funk (vocals), Gwen Lewandoski (bass) and Danaca Tomas (drums).

KP’s GT with Brian Alcid (guitar), Tony Daniels (bass) and Larry Feaster (drums).

Von Wheelie’s Express with Isaiah Tankiewicz (vocals), Sam Olsen (guitar), and Bill Schlanbusch (bass).

Dale Phillips’ Girl Trouble Revival with Del Brown (vocals), John Ramberg (guitar) and Doug Mackey (drums).

Photo credit – Tim Olsen

NWMS: What kind of a set list can we expect from Girl Trouble itself? Any chance KP will break out the sax?

Bon Von Wheelie: For our anniversary we usually do some songs that we first played, some covers we used to do. We realize that we’ve got quite a song list built up after all these years; we kind of pick out something from every album.

And yes, KP will once again be busting out the sax for a couple of songs. We realized he hasn’t played it in almost a year! I’m telling him to keep his shirt on too. He never listens to me.

NWMS: What is Fawcett Hall and has the band ever played there before? Any good stories?

Bon Von Wheelie: The Fawcett Hall is in the newly renovated Alma Mater facility. This building was the old Carpenters’ Union Hall where The Sonics said they played shows in the old days. The building next to it was the Crescent Ballroom when all the 60s bands used to play those Pat O’Day circuit shows.

I used to go to the Crescent during my hippie days to see bands. It was a really great ballroom. Later that building became known as Legends and it hosted some crazy shows with the Butthole Surfers etc. We did get to play the Crescent once which was a thrill for me. Then they renovated it, and kept the outside of the building but turned the inside ballroom into a parking garage. That was a shame. But we are thrilled that the new Alma Mater is right next to it. This is great for the Tacoma art/music scene.

NWMS: We haven’t seen a Girl Trouble record in awhile. Any chance of a new one soon?

Bon Von Wheelie: If I told you all about the pieces of recordings we’ve done over the years it would take another full-length documentary. Recording has never been easy for us, ever. So we would record bits and pieces here and there over the years and then never do anything with it.

Isaac and Sam Olsen thought it would be a waste to just abandon all those recordings we are sitting on. We thought they weren’t that great, but Isaac convinced us to let them work on them. We really like what they’ve done so we might just release all these various recordings we’ve done over the past 10 years.

It’s interesting that Tim Olsen’s kids are now working on our recordings. Tim produced all our records years ago when his sons, Isaac and Sam, were babies (or not even born yet). Now they are old enough to work on our stuff. That’s what 35 years will do for you! We are hoping to have something out this year. And yes, we say that every year but we really are closer this time.

NWMS: You opened for The Sonics years ago. How did you get on that bill? Did you get to meet the fellows? If so, how did it go?

Bon Von Wheelie: Opening for The Sonics at the Paramount in Seattle was hands-down a thrill and an honor. They hadn’t played together in 30 years (and nobody thought they’d ever get back together) so this was a very big deal. We mostly got the gig because Buck Ormsby from the Fabulous Wailers knew us a bit and thought we’d fit in. We sadly lost Buck a few years ago, but we are forever grateful to him for letting us play this show. We knew how lucky we were to get it, but we also thought (and maybe Buck did too) that a band from Tacoma should get the gig.

We already knew Larry Parypa (Sonics’ guitarist) a bit from seeing him around. He’s a really great guy. Kahuna played in the Sonics tribute band, New Original Sonics Sound, with some Seattle musicians from Mudhoney, Young Fresh Fellows, and Gas Huffer. During that time he’d met a couple of The Sonics too. They are really super cool guys.

The show at the Paramount couldn’t have been better. It was sold-out and many of our friends from other states came to see The Sonics. It was an amazing night.

NWMS: Any chance of audiences in Seattle seeing you anytime soon?

Bon Von Wheelie:  Two weeks after our anniversary show we are playing a show with Pat Todd & The Rank Outsiders. We’ve known Pat from his time with the legendary Lazy Cowgirls. His new band is a rock powerhouse and so is Pat. Also on the bill is another amazing band, The Lovesores from Portland. This is going to be something, at Slim’s Last Chance Saloon on Friday, March 22nd and we are really looking forward to it.

NWMS: The four of you stated in the film that you wanted to be buried side by side. I hope you all live to 250, but do you have to put down a reservation on a plot?

Bon Von Wheelie:  Just like with everything else we do…we are procrastinating on that one. We gotta get another record out first.


Click HERE to get more info about the Alma Mater show on March 9 and visit the Girl Trouble website for a history lesson about this northwest treasure.


Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin likes to photograph shoes and write about dog shit. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, where he resides today. He attended the Evergreen State College, where he wrote and edited arts coverage for the Cooper Point Journal. He is the film critic for the Northwest Asian Weekly, and he’s published arts coverage and criticism in the San Diego Reader, Village Voice, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Goldmine, and other publications. He misses Helen Wiggin. Hamlin’s website is https://andrewhamlin.org.