(This cover story originally appeared in the February, 2006 issue of
the San Diego Troubadourwww.sandiegotroubadour.com)
The Anatomy Of A Modern Working Band
It is still
many hours before his band’s gig later that night as Chuck Schiele
saunters somnolently down the stairs in search of a cup of joe. His wife
Joanna had just let me in moments before, greeting me with a warm hug
and a smile, and trailing the scent of many enticing culinary delights
in from the kitchen behind her. I have entered nothing if not the cozy
HQ of Charles Schiele Creative, Ocean Beach Music Mafia, and a number
of other joint and singular ventures on which the still somewhat recently
married Mr. and Mrs. Schiele collaborate.
It is also ground zero for The Grams, Schiele’s latest musical project.
Everything about The Grams (as in the movie 21 Grams, which is the supposed
weight of the soul that leaves the body upon death) begins and ends here
in this halcyon two-story house and accompanying backyard garage. These
edifices both literally and figuratively bespeak the anatomy of a modern
(Now, by “working” I mean to imply two things: one; The Grams
“work” in that there is a symbiotic synergy between them,
that each band member has his or her own complementary function, ergo
it works in a way that won’t find them disintegrating anytime soon,
and two; they seem to be working like mad these days, gigging frequently,
taking advantage of every available opportunity that comes their way,
and building a successful career in music outside the confluence of the
flagging major label system.)
Chuck picks up a snack-laden tray that Joanna prepared and leads me out
through the small backyard, past a congenial sea of deck chairs and barbeque
grilles (where much colloquial revelry has obviously transpired) and into
the converted garage. Here is where his growing collection of instruments,
eclectic trinkets, eccentric furnishings, band posters, memorabilia and
recording equipment is housed. This is the creative womb where Schiele
conducts rehearsals for The Grams and other local bands as an ancillary
service provided by his Ocean Beach Music Mafia, or simply the “Mob.”
This tapestry and rug-laden room is the principal–if not always
literal–birthplace of Schiele’s music, and the locus where
it usually passes through sundry bits of recording equipment to find quasi-physical
form. He is the chief songwriter and lead vocalist for The Grams, and
a veteran of the San Diego music scene.
Schiele’s formative years transpired in upstate New York, but you
would hardly know it from the laid-back bohemian air he now emanates.
It’s necessary to wait for the brusque New York frankness to spill
out of his Sagittarian mouth to confirm his East cost origins. When he
was four or five he matter-of-factly informed his parents he would be
heading out West when he came of age. Perhaps the shock of him leaving
was more due to the realization that the time had finally arrived than
to any disbelief of the child he had been when he’d made the promise.
Even at such an early age, Chuck Schiele already had a supple grip on
his destiny…like Babe Ruth’s hands on a baseball bat.
While the time-biding child languished in Syracuse, he vainly set about
trying to get his elementary school music teacher to learn him the drums.
Chuck was diverted to at least three other less enchanting instruments
before quitting music altogether. It wasn’t until college that he
picked up the trail again, inspired by The Beatles, Queen, Aerosmith’s
“Sweet Emotion,” and his dad, who was a professional jazz
bass player in San Diego at the height of the 70’s club scene.
“There was a guitar in the corner so I asked him to show me how
to play it,” Chuck reminisces. “He explained music theory
to me and I was off and running. I never really had any formal music training,
but I took a lot of classes in college, went to recording school, and
then learned mostly by jumping in. I could write songs before I could
play guitar and have written them all through my life. Early on I often
wrote stuff I couldn't play, so my lesson became the act of learning how
to play the music I heard in my head.”
“Before I knew it I was in a band,” Schiele continues, “and
have been in a band ever since. My favorites include The And (rock and
groove band), Modern Peasants (Rock/Groove/World), Mysterious Ways (rock/acoustic),
The Gandhi Method (folk rock/acoustic) and now The Grams.”
Along the way he also made a point to play solo, fleshing out the musical
concepts that stemmed from what Jim Earp had taught him regarding alternate
guitar tunings during their time together in the Modern Peasants. In a
live performance scenario with The Grams, Schiele draws on this erudition
by providing the perfect foundation for his bandmates; a bass-heavy sound
with solid, driving rhythms. He is, in effect, a self-contained rhythm
The music that flows out of Schiele now is at once Southern sass (think
New Awlins, Cajun, Zydeco), classic rock, and implicitly evocative of
old world locales where ancient religions have roosted for eons. “I
write mostly from spiritual motivations, often associated with travels,”
Chuck relates. “I also write from explorations in my personal music
learning. I learn something new to do everyday...something to pick on
my own skills about...and I'll always be in that school.”
We’re conversing over the hors d’oeuvres in the darkened garage
studio when the husband and wife team of Craig Yerkes and Elise Ohki finally
arrive. They’ve left their gig clothes and instruments up front
in the living room and have joined us in the studio. “Craigness”
and “Sweet Elise,” as they are familiarly known, are usually
late for Grams-related events because they have to commute all the way
from North County. The married musicians also have full-time careers;
Yerkes commutes to Orange County five days a week for his job, and Ohki
works in the biotech field.
Because their music making doesn’t have to pay bills, and due to
erstwhile life decisions made in their younger years (including having
children, on Craig’s part), there is no pressure to “succeed”
put on their collaboration with Chuck, who is the only full-time musician
among them (although he also does graphic design, among a plethora of
other things). The trio harbors no old-fashioned dreams of–and have
no time or patience for–the idiosyncrasies of rock stardom, but
they may still be able to enjoy some kind of success and notoriety due
to the growing number of resources and marketing avenues now available
to independent artists. Their recent inclusion on a Japanese radio playlist,
Chuck’s visit to the legendary Sun studios in Memphis, his solo
appearance at New York’s renowned CBGBs, and The Grams’ San
Diego Music Award nomination this past September are all evidence of such
Elise Ohki grew up in the greater Buffalo area of upstate New York and
discovered the piano and the violin while still in single digits. She
played the latter in school and county orchestras, including the Buffalo
Suzuki Strings group, and found her way to Oberlin College, where she
would arrive at the crucial musical crossroad of her life. Ohki felt too
much pressure to be perfect on the path to becoming a professional classical
violinist, so she made the decision to pursue a career in science and
keep her musical activity free on the side. She was determined to obtain
a degree in a field that would enable her to provide for herself financially,
and the classical music profession seemed to be a glorified crapshoot
for even the most proficient of players. Nevertheless, she continued to
play violin through graduate school at SUNY Buffalo as well as with the
Amherst Community Orchestra, and finally moved to San Diego to pursue
employment opportunities in 2002. Elise now works in the gene regulation
division at the Invitrogen Corporation.
By the time she met and befriended Chuck Schiele through a mutual acquaintance
at an Ocean Beach bar, Elise had all but abandoned the violin. The plot
gradually thickened, however, as Chuck discovered and slowly drew out
Elise’s musicality. They began their collaboration in 2003, and
the result was a creative detour for Ohki’s classically trained
hands, which, although still well regimented, were liberated by their
first foray into contemporary music.
The two outspoken yet also somehow reserved upstate New Yorkers fell into
(and still enjoy) an older-brother/younger-sister kind of rapport, full
of acerbic yet lighthearted jabs, quips and jovial razzing. The male Grams
will be the first to tell you that Elise is the band’s barometer
of relative goodness, as she is blunt in her views and deft with the power
of veto when it comes to things like new song choices, stage volume, and
the length of Craig’s solos. The sardonic twist to the “Sweet
Elise” nickname is that she is decidedly curt and brusque with her
opinions and judgments, though not maliciously so. The fact that she is
more often astute in these observations and conclusions than not lends
a paradoxically endearing puerility to her general countenance.
Elise and her violin provide the group with a connection to both old and
new musical idioms. The lyricism of her neoclassical violin melodies provide
a traditionally fresh counterpoint to Chuck’s lead vocals, and the
modern “fiddle” context of the instrument itself connects
The Grams with a more contemporary folk and bluegrass tradition. When
she’s not recapitulating vocal melodies or introducing new motifs,
she’s adding staccato and sustained pedal tone textures underneath
Chuck’s vocal expositions. The occasional addition of her own mezzo-soprano
voice at the top of three-part group harmonies rounds out her contributions
to The Grams’ sound.
Elise was eventually drawn into the overlapping spheres of Chuck’s
myriad musical connections, and it didn’t take long for her own
circle to expand and create the perfect conditions for a fateful meeting
with Craig Yerkes. Brother to fellow San Diego musician Marcia Claire
of the Citizen Band and the Cathryn Beeks Ordeal, Craig had known Chuck
for some time and traveled in the same circles. The pieces slowly fell
into place and by the end of 2003 The Grams had become a band. Craig and
Elise would eventually marry in July of 2004, and it is a point of pride
for Chuck that he not only got them together but also brought them both
out of semi-retirement.
Yerkes is the only California native of the three, having spent most of
his life in San Diego County. He got an early start and was playing guitar
in a touring teenybopper group with Marcia Claire by age 12. He also played
in his high school and college jazz bands until he realized he was “a
rock guitarist doing a bad imitation of a jazz guitarist,” as he
self-deprecatingly put it. “I was really into the chops thing to
a fault when I was younger,” Craig continues. “I just wanted
to keep getting faster due to influences like Al DiMeola and Steve Morse.
Now it’s all about the solo singing its own song, whether I’m
playing 1 note or 100.”
After a brief, failed stint as a guitarist with two Grammy-winning gospel
artists, Craig decided to downgrade his musical pursuits to hobby status.
He had only occasionally picked up the guitar during the previous twelve
years when Schiele came calling.
Yerkes is a lead guitarist in the old tradition of axe men who don’t
always double the rhythm part under the vocals but add another complimentary
texture or melody to the underlying work. Craig’s leads are concise,
rich in tone and wildly entertaining. When the gig is long and space needs
filling, Craig is the Gram who is most ready, willing and able to step
in and fill it. He has the chops and exploratory mindset to improvise
lengthy, interesting solos in the live milieu, and the restraint to compose
ingenious countermelodies and instrumental harmonies for him and Elise
live and in the studio. His curtailed jazz aspirations led him to an ideal
grotto where the wild, histrionic waterfall of technique met the pool
of mature melodic restraint.
Craig adds his clear, crisp tenor to The Grams’ vocal palette, performing
close harmonies with Chuck and even singing lead on “Poor Little
Rich Girl” from the recently completed, eponymous debut album. The
general gist is that Yerkes may be singing some more songs in the future.
For now, though, he is content with his predominantly supportive role
in the band.
While we’ve been talking in the studio, Joanna has been occasionally
popping in and out with updates on the sumptuous meal she is preparing.
A few minutes pass after one such visit when we collectively realize that
Joanna is as much a part of what goes on behind the scenes at Grams Central
as her husband. Craig and Elise are as anxious to hear our new pertinent
subject’s story as I am, for they are equally as uneducated as to
exactly what it is she does on behalf of The Grams.
Joanna also grew up in New York and cut her music, marketing and networking
teeth at the Manhattan Design firm, the same company responsible for the
MTV logo among many other pertinent icons of pop culture and music. She
brings these years of big-city marketing experience (not to mention her
own history of singing in bands–she lent background vocals to some
of the songs on the record) to what she does administratively for The
Grams. Her understanding of both sides of the commercialization of art
sums up her contribution to the trio’s behind-the-scenes machine.
Chuck had already become quite proficient at executing the administrative
functions that most musicians bemoan and are poorly suited for when Joanna
came into his life. Now they are virtually as unstoppable as they are
thorough in their combination of complementary attributes. They work together
in the conjoined pair of bedrooms on the house’s second floor, unearthing
predominantly internet-based marketing opportunities for The Grams, and
shouting updates back and forth to streamline their efforts.
“With Joanna coming into my life, things have only gotten better
and healthier for music matters,” Chuck says. “We work together
very closely, and I am astonished by what happens when we combine our
strengths to fix on and obtain our goal. We are furthering our involvements
to include the movie industry as well as alternative markets and distribution.
We're also big on serving our community and go so far as to get them involved.
We've grown so fast that we're in the process of reorganizing and building
We wrap up the interview and head inside, where Joanna’s delectable
dinner awaits us. We watch something about the end of days on the History
channel while we eat and drink wine and revel in the sense of unity and
nourishment we’ve established throughout the day. Then the time
comes for them to do the fun part of their work, and after changing into
their performance attire The Grams disappear into the inviting night to
show a new audience the weight of the soul.