The first time the genius of Chris “Sugarballs” Sprague came to my attention, he was doing a guitar solo while being held upside down by two audience members. It was not the usual thing I’d encounter on a weekend night out. By the end of the evening, I’d seen Sugarballs, sing, play drums, play guitar, play guitar inverted, and have a dance-off with a cute girl in the audience (he won). Exhausted from cheering, I turned to the friend I’d come with and said “Is there anything that guy CAN’T do?”
The short answer? No.
As the fella behind the skins for rockabilly hotshots like Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics, Big Sandy, and Los Straitjackets, Sugarballs can be found during any given set performing a drum solo on a drum relocated to the front of the stage, on a bass guitar, or on a lady audience member’s behind, before striking a triumphant pose and asking the audience “Are you not entertained?” (We are!)
When not behind the kit for someone else, he’s recently taken to leading a quartet of his own hip cats – The Outta Sites – a group that bears more than a passing resemblance to Spinal Tap during their “Gimme Some Money” phase (Hey, that’s a compliment people!). Twangin’ it 1964-style the band have already done a few bunny hops around the states, bringing with them an arsenal of tunes that aptly channel The Ventures, The Dave Clark Five, and The Kingsmen, leading them to already be listed as entertainment for an array of upcoming hip fests this year, including The New England Shake Up.
Over fish and chips, at local watering hole Doyle’s Café, I caught up with Sugarballs and the band to hear the latest.
Rocker: I was trying to research you, and I realized, you are very under-appreciated and under-interviewed, so I was wondering if you could tell me a brief of “the Sugarballs story”.
Sugarballs: I live in Los Angeles, I was actually born in Long Beach. My father was a musician, he played trumpet with big bands – with Woody Herman and some other big bands – so he traveled quite a bit. All of my family is from Texas, Wichita Falls, Texas, and they went out to LA for a stint, and I was born in Long Beach, California, and then about a year later they moved back to Texas, and I kind of went back and forth between Texas and LA my whole life.
About seven or eight years old, I had my first performance, in the school talent show. It was only for sixth-graders, but I was good enough in first grade to compete – and I won, by the way! I performed “Rock Around the Clock”, because Happy Days just came out, and that was the big thing.
Me and Deke [Dickerson] joke that because we’re the same age, we were a product of “the Seventies 50s”, in other words, we were influenced by 1976, 1977, 1978,… Happy Days, and American Graffiti. So that was our inspiration for rockabilly, and rock and roll music in general. So I was watching Happy Days and I learned “Rock Around the Clock” on Guitar, and my brother Frank, played rhythm guitar and I sang it. The next day at school, everybody was like, “Oh my God, you’re like Fonzie!” and I’m like, “This is what I’m going to do.” That was literally the turning point of my life, that’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve always wanted to do that.
So through the years growing up, my parents got divorced and my mom won custody. Basically she was a salesperson for a paper company, so we would move back and forth between either Dallas, Los Angeles, up to San Francisco for a short stint, back to Texas, to Denver for a short period, and I always played music my whole life, and then my brother and I decided to form The Sprague Brothers, probably in my late teens, when I was about 19 or 20. We did a TV show with Dan Ackroyd- a pilot. They discovered us on a public access show that was syndicated around the nation, and we were discovered by Dan Ackroyd and this producer guy and they got us for the part. We actually had to audition, go to Fox, and we basically played. It was kind of like Reno 911, where me and my brother played brothers who were undercover detectives who also played in a rock and roll band. So it was basically a reality show, and it’s called CCPD, Chula, Christie Chula Police Department.
Rocker: Isn’t this the premise of the Hardy Boys TV show?
Sugarballs: It was basically Reno 911, because it was supposed to be a reality show, but it was all sketched out. So it’s like Reno 911, and we got the part, and Fran Drescher was the dispatcher, Dan Ackroyd was the lieutenant, and there were a few other kind of famous actors. We filmed the pilot, and we thought it was going to be the best thing in the world, and then literally a couple of weeks before it aired, the LA Riots happened, and that was 1992. So that kind of discouraged us– we moved back to Texas for a bit. In 1992, we also played a place called the Blue Saloon where Deke Dickerson was working the door, so we met Deke then, came back to LA in ’95 for good, kind of hooked back up with Deke. He played with the Sprague Brothers for two years, and then he broke up the Dave & Deke Combo, and formed his own band, Deke Dickerson and his Ecco-phonics. And at that point, he went off on his own, I was still doing the Sprague Brothers. Me and my brother stopped playing for a bit, Deke asked me to join as a drummer. So I basically became Deke’s drummer back in 1998-99, for all live shows. And I kind of did Sprague Brothers stuff here on the side, but I mainly played with Deke until, I would say, up until now.
But then I started doing the Eighteen Wheelers as a side project, because Deke would have me sing a couple of jobs per show and I always had this love for truck driving music, like the 60s truck driving, so I thought, “Let me sing ‘Girl on the Billboard’”, and that became kind of a big hit with him, that it made me want to form the Eighteen Wheelers and do shows just doing truck driving music. So I did that up until probably a couple of years ago, and then the Sprague Brothers broke up a few years back, we kind of stopped playing together, and we actually kind of evolved into kind of a more Mersey Beat band, early 60s British Invasion type sound with harmonies, and when we broke that up, I really wanted to do a band like that again, hence The Outta Sites.
And then about a year and a half ago, I got a call from Los Straitjackets, and I joined their band. So that’s kind of my primary band right now. My free time, Pete Curry and I, who’s in Los Straitjackets, we’re in the Outta Sites, so we do that when we’re not playing with Los Straitjackets.
Rocker: There are so many – you pretty much just listed currently you’re in three bands. Is that comfortable for you?
Sugarballs: Would you like me to name off all the bands I’m actually in?
Rocker: I would! Go right ahead.
Sugarballs: Okay. We got the Outta Sites, the Eighteen Wheelers, Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-phonics. I play with Big Sandy as well, Los Straitjackets, there’s five.
Rocker: You’ve run out of fingers and you’re going to have to go to the next hand.
Sugarballs: Amber Fox, back in Los Angeles, I’m in her band. Ventures Mania, which is me and Deke’s tribute to the Ventures. The Go-Nuts, which is another band that Deke and I are involved in. So there’s eight that I can name off-hand that I’m in. And I’m sure there’s more I’m missing, too, but I think that’s probably eight bands. (Ed note – at his show later that night, Sugarballs told me had forgotten a number of other bands he was in, the total may be more like a dozen)
Rocker: Why so many bands?
Sugarballs: Because only two work at a time. So if you’re going to play professionally, you’ve got to play in multiple bands if you’re going to make a living.
Rocker: Do you know how many days out of the year you’re on the road?
Sugarballs: I haven’t counted last year or this year yet, but I’m going to guess around 200 shows a year. 150 to 200.
Rocker: I can see you’re a married guy, wife at home, is it difficult, do you love being out on the road?
Sugarballs: You know what? It kind of has to be in your blood. Some people aren’t just cut out for life on the road, and I kind of am. I feel like when I go to Boston, I’m 10 miles away from home, I don’t have that long distance, “oh, I’m so far from home,” thing. My wife’s very understanding, and I’ll make a point once or twice a year to fly her wherever I’m at, just to break it up.
Rocker: But if you could be just in one band and make a living, would you do that?
Sugarballs: I would! I would love to that, and it would be The Outta Sites
Rocker: So, am I imagining things? Or were the Straitjackets on Conan? What was that like?
Sugarballs: It was my first time, back on January 28, and it was fantastic, but what shocked me is that they’ve been on Conan O’Brien a total of nine time over the last fifteen years.
Rocker: So does he just have a thing for the Straitjackets?
Sugarballs: It’s his favorite band.
Rocker: Oh, I didn’t know.
Sugarballs: And they appeared the other eight times when he was on NBC in New York, and this last time was the first time since he came to LA and went to the TBS network. And he was – Conan was the sweetest, nicest guy I’ve ever met. He came over after we did our sound check, and we were — I don’t know if you want to print this part, but it’s kind of funny.
Rocker: You can tell me, and it’s off the record.
Sugarballs: No, it can be on the record, and you know, he came over, he’s talking to us, and he’s a big guitar nerd, he loves guitars, and he would pick up his guitar between when they’re doing the rehearsal, between skits, he would pick up his guitar and start playing, and he came over and was talking to the guys and he’d comment on the guitars, and he’s like, “Yeah, I got one of those Relic guitars,” which means it was made now, but it’s made to look like an old guitar, like distressed, and he looks at me, and he’s like, “You know, it’s like a hooker, where they look great far away until you get up close.” And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, my hooker looked great up close.” And he’s like, he laughed, and was like, “I like this guy”, so that was great to make Conan laugh. Sugarballs made him laugh. It was genius.
Rocker: So had you been on a TV show of that caliber before?
Sugarballs: Yeah, back in 2000, the Sprague Brothers were on CBS Saturday Morning News in New York, where they flew us out and we did five songs over the hour, they would keep cutting back and we’d do a song, and it was funny because – I’m trying to remember if it was 1999 or 2000, it was when JFK Jr’s plane crashed. We filmed it on Friday and they were going to air it Saturday morning, the next day, JFK Jr’s plane went down. So they didn’t air the show. They did a whole live thing about him, they cut everything they filmed, but they aired it two weeks later, they actually said, “We’re going to air the Sprague Brothers because we really like them a lot,” We were watching amazon.com, the record sales, because, you know, if you’re unpopular, you’re ranked, “your record is number 200,018” whatever, when that show aired, we hit top 100, we were passing Abbey Road and Sergeant Pepper in record sales.
Rocker: So just for a moment, you were…
Sugarballs: For that moment we were more famous than the Beatles.
Rocker: Like Slim Whitman was!
Rocker: I would say the thing that I immediately latched onto you as a performer is the amount of showmanship you bring. Is it just an outgrowth of your personality, or do you and Deke sit there thinking, okay, “Now I’ll be upside down.”
Sugarballs: We never work anything out, it pretty much comes off my personality. The whole upside down thing started with the Eighteen Wheelers. There used to be this club in LA, it was kind of a wooden old ship thing, and they had this chandelier, a wooden wheel, like a ship wheel, as a chandelier, and I used to jump up and swing from it above the audience. Until one day it fell. And of course –
Rocker: With you holding onto it?
Sugarballs: No, that was the miracle, I dropped off of it, and I get back up on stage, and then it just fell to the ground. And it would have probably crushed me, you know? But when that happened, my wife was so upset with me, like “You’re just out of control” and I’m like, “What can I do that’s the exact opposite of hanging from a chandelier? I’ll hang upside down.” So I got the idea of getting two guys to hold me up, and I’ll play the guitar upside down. And that’s how that started.
Rocker: Have you ever had problems with people dropping you mid-way through that?
Sugarballs: I’ve never had them drop me. It’s all about the logistics, like, the really tall guys can hold me up, but short stocky guys can’t do it. And what they’ll do is they’ll lift me up, and I’ll be playing and I’ll feel their arms shaking, and I’ll just start lowering to the ground, and I’ll end up balancing myself on my head until it’s over with.
We played this little road house in North Carolina, and there was this really scary, 6’5” Marine, just built like GI Joe, and he’s kinda ornery, he’s kinda angry, and I went up to him, “Excuse me sir, would you and maybe one of your friends hold me upside down?” And he’s like, “Why do I need anybody else?”
Rocker: Oh, Lord.
Sugarballs: You can hold me upside down by yourself? And he’s like, “What do you think?” “Uh, yes, yes you can!” And then when it came time to do it, he picked me up and he swung me like a toy. Like I was a toy. He just picked me up by himself and I was just dangling in the air. It was great, it was amazing. I want that guy to be on my side, you know? I don’t want to make him angry.
Rocker: How did your prolific dancing come into shows as well?
Sugarballs: You know, Deke used to have a band called the Untamed Youth, and the keyboard player was Sammy and he had this song “Dance Sammy Dance”, and Sammy would go out and do this kind of ridiculous dance that didn’t look like anything, and then one night I think Deke pretty much said, “We’re going to do Dance Sugarballs Dance,” and Deke’s like, in the middle and I’ll come over and get on the drums, you get out and dance. And I’m like, “Uh, okay.” So he did it, and I just immediately started doing the pony or the monkey or whatever else, and people loved it.
Rocker: I mean, you are possibly the greatest dancer I’ve ever seen.
Sugarballs: [Laughs] Thank you. You know, I’ve only lost one dance-off and it was here in Boston with Panda. Panda was amazing. He’s like the living Chris Farley. Chris Farley was a great dancer, and that’s what Panda reminded me of. He was doing the sprinkler, the lawnmower, all these dances.
Rocker: Do you ever feel sorry for the people whose asses you kick in dancing?
Sugarballs: Not at all.
Sugarballs: Not at all, they all deserve a good ass-whupping. It’s funny though, because with The Outta Sites, we’ll do a song where all three of us will get out dancing. I’ll start and then Jason will come out and start drumming with the pony, and then Zach comes out and we all dance together and sing and then we work our way back up on stage.
Everything I’ve learned over the years, I’ve incorporated in this band. I take mental notes, and I’m like, “You know, the thing I hate about 60s bands is they play really wimpy, and they don’t know” and I’ll make notes, and we’ll rock it up and the dance moves, we’ll do syncopated moves that no one does anymore, we dress alike on stage, like the Beatles would do, just the qualities, the showmanship that I’ve learned over the years, all of that’s been poured into this band. It’s my love, the Outta Sites is like a baby to me. This is the band – and it’s the only band I’ve ever been in that I’ve started – including the Sprague Brothers, the Eighteen Wheelers – where we’re getting calls out of the blue, record labels are contacting us for to get a record contract, there’s been so many things where we’re getting calls for that I had to hustle to get that stuff for the Sprague Brothers or the Eighteen Wheelers. This band has such good chemistry, it’s kind of this magical ingredient that’s been missing before, is in this band.
The club we played in Collinsville with the Straitjackets, the owners said to us “You guys should be on David Letterman”, what a compliment, your first time out to the east coast, you know, trying to break into the scene, to be getting those kind of compliments, so it’s definitely The Outta Sites are my love and everything I’ve worked for my whole career is kind of geared toward this band.
Rocker: How did you assemble The Outta Sites?
Sugarballs: We all live in Los Angeles, I’ve played with these guys in different bands. Zach Simpson, our bass player, he’s actually the acoustic rhythm guitar player in the Eighteen Wheelers. And he’s a phenomenal musician, he’s a young guy, he’s really good at memorizing songs, just very musically talented, so I’m like, that’s the bass player. And I’ve played with Jason in a couple other bands before, and he’s just a phenomenal keyboard player, and I’m like, he’s the guy. Pete Curry who plays bass with the Straitjackets, he was a drummer with surf bands back in the day, so he was the ideal choice for a drummer.
Rocker: Do you think it’s a bit of practice makes perfect, truly? I think it’s interesting, because you sort of talk about taking mental notes, whittling it down. Is it really just sort of your ongoing professionalism that make this into the big –
Sugarballs: Definitely, it’s a lot to do with the chemistry with the musicians, too, it’s kind of a lottery, you could put Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart and whoever else in a band, it doesn’t mean you’re going to like them, you know what I mean? But if you get the right chemistry of musicians together, like the Beatles had. Those guys were unknown nobodies, and they formed this band and it was magical. So that’s kind of the way I feel about it.
Rocker: Do you have any sense, before you put all of these people in one room that the chemistry would be there? Or is it just that you put them in a room and the chemistry was there, and you were happy to have it?
Sugarballs: I had a feeling it would work out, and then after the first practice, get together playing, I knew it would, I’m like, oh thank god it worked out. Because you never know, you never know, you may like someone who’s playing in another band, and they you get them into this form of music, and this band, and idealism, and it doesn’t work out. It’s like a date. You know somebody, a friend of yours you’ve known for years, all of a sudden you go on a date and there’s no chemistry, you know what I mean? When it does work out, it’s great, but you never know, you never know.