Andy “The Smokeboss” Mensing, the well-known rhythm guitar player of San Diego punk outfit Rat City Riot, recently announced his new endeavor with The Smokeboss Militia, a raw and rollicking blues, acoustic rock and alternative country band. The band just released their first album, Rise Again, in December. Andy sat with us to discuss the music, the new album and his return to earlier roots.
You’re known for your punk music. Why this new trajectory with The Smokeboss Militia and this different style?
These are songs that I wrote before, during and after my time in punk bands. And even while I was in Rat City Riot I’d do solo tours in Europe where I’d break some of these songs out acoustically. But two years ago, both the punk and California chapters of my book ended, as well the alcohol chapter, so it just kind of happened naturally. I moved to Florida after spending the ‘Aproxaclypse’ (my pet name for the Pandemic) getting sober in seclusion in Ocean Beach, and I’d even stopped playing my guitar as it had felt like too much of a trigger. Until I found this very beautiful and largely secluded beach here that made me drag out the guitar again and play to the waves. The live music bug bit me hard again there and soon I was hitting the open mics. That’s where I found folks who were really into the old and new songs I was playing for them. And it just went from there. Hard to call it a new trajectory though. I just seem to have trouble sticking in one lane. It all stems from my love of many different kinds of music.
This somewhat marks a return to your earlier roots, correct?
It was a return to my roots, but I think I brought all the important things I’d learned back with me. I started out in high school playing classic rock, folk, irish- whatever I could get away with. It wasn’t til junior year that I joined my first ‘punk’ band. And even while doing that I was writing songs that became other things- other genres. So it was all connected. Or simultaneous. A special case of ADHD perhaps. But songwriting has always been my favorite thing. This project is a return to my songs and my affinity for all the different kinds of music that you can mix and match.
How did this new project come about?
The first step was finding Lucia Hare-Leahy at the open mics. Our voices just clicked- and the harmonies and her banjo playing together with interesting additions like John Ace’s incredible bluegrass fiddle gave us all the feeling we were on to something. We’d been playing around a bit wherever we could get gigs, and an amazing drummer named Bill Meredith joined the band. And I guess you could say he ‘really tied the room together’. Bill has a natural ability to understand songs and where they want to go. Working on my songs with Bill and the band really brought out their best sides. So it seemed only natural to record them. Bill had a friend named Guy Gualtieri who is a genius recording engineer, and after a brief phone conversation I knew we had the right guy (no pun intended). Guy’s technical knowhow coupled with his uncanny ability to make musicians both comfortable and stoked to lay tracks made this project the most enjoyable one I’ve ever done. And I’ve had a LOT of fun making records. And then I asked some old friends to lay down some tracks in their studios and send them to us, and happily they all agreed. All the right stars aligned I guess. I am so thankful that this happened the way it did.
The music is described as a mix of blues, acoustic rock and alternative country. Is this accurate?
I think it’s accurate, but maybe it doesn’t tell the whole tale. Those are certainly major themes within this collection of songs. I think the best part was learning what the songs wanted to be when I let them tell me. I think its just as important to listen to what’s being written as you write it. Really hear where its taking you. I have always loved (and believed in) Tom Petty’s theory of the Cosmic radio that everyone has a built-in receiver- but everyone’s radio picks up different frequencies. A little wacky, but I believe there is something to that. That we as artists are just picking up and interpreting ‘signals’ and a good song is just a true interpretation of the right mix of traveling energy. Like…Whoa, man (sarcastic cackle)- I know it gets a little bit bonkers waxing transcendental and existential and all… but there’s only so much credit we can take for it. Better to just make it the best you can and send it out for people to check out and run it through their onboard radios.
How is the music different, and how is it the same? In what ways does it differ and align?
Each song started with a basic genre. Rock, blues, country- whatever it was at first- and evolved into the track you hear today. Songs like No girlfriend, Trusted, and Crush were three from a similar period where I was just Frankensteining different types of music together. Like in No Girlfriend it starts as a growly blues song until the chorus becomes almost more of a grunge hook and then the bridge is this jazzy thing. Trusted’s bridge is basically another song that just found its proper place in the world within that song. But then you’ve got the country twins- ‘Ain’t it Just Like You’ and ‘Misunderstood’ which are no doubt different kinds of music. But the throughline is that each song’s musical make up and lyrical meanings are odd juxtapositions too. There’s a lot of songs about relationships gone wrong. But hopefully the listener hears that even if the subject matter isn’t happy there is still an optimism in the song. Lessons? Or is the mind open to learning lessons? At least I hope that’s one of the takeaways.
You released Rise Again in December. What has the reaction been like?
The feedback has been positive. I would like to see it reach many more ears than it has yet to reach. But people are getting it. I am so grateful that ANYONE has taken the time and had the interest in really checking it out. I thank the listeners past, present and future for perusing this crazy record I made with my friends! Keep searching through the noise of the music industry and you will find the good stuff. It’s harder than ever now, so you really gotta persevere. But the most exciting thing for me is when someone quotes a line back to me and throws up a fist or a nod- indicating it hit them right.
How did those songs come together;and is there one song that you think most defines the album, or you as an artist?
This collection of songs came together by first going through all the old songs that I hadn’t done with any of my punk bands, playing the ones that resonated first at open mics and then at gigs, and then seeing them come together to form a really comprehensive anthology of my other work as a songwriter. In all the punk bands I was in, we wrote mostly together or in small sub groups. With the songs on Rise Again I wrote the lyrics and chords and arranged them before I brought in others to find their parts. The key was having people I could trust to really get up in the song and unleash their spectacle over the skyline of the city I built. And when those trusted friends are also some of the best at what they play, you’ve got fireworks and celebration. I’m talking about jamband veteran Peter Levin’s B3 on ‘Trusted’. I’m talking about reggae keyboard guru Roger Rivas’ singular take and solo on ‘Misunderstood’. I’m talking about lead guitarist Jedi Ritchie Orduño’s screaming-fire-telecaster gymnastics on ‘Rise Again’. Those are just a few examples. The songs came together on the record because everyone played ‘together’ even though most of it was overdubs. They came together because everyone playing on them really got them and took them in. And in turn they gave such considerate and weighty layers to each song. That fit.
I think the song that best encompasses this record is the title track- ‘Rise Again’. Its the last song in the collection that I wrote, and the first song I wrote sober. It’s a reminder that everybody falls, you just have to remember to get back up. I hope that’s in all my work- somewhere an inspiration to keep going with your head up, no matter where you’re going. You will always find things that you can be angry at at, but if you put a little more effort in you can find something that gets you back on your good foot too. And now I’m Kermit the Frog at the end of his scene in the swamp with Dom DeLouise- ( strums banjo, gazes thoughtfully at the sky) ” Hmmm… Millions of people happy…” And here’s the evidence the judge uses to lock me up- This record was my ‘Muppet Movie’ and I ‘Kermitted’ it the best I could.
Will you tour with the new album?
That is the intent. We are right now putting together a band as the players on this record are many and live far and wide doing their own muppet movies. But I hope we can take this music everywhere.
What’s next for The Smokeboss Militia?
We are working with some friends to play locally at Clematis By Night here in Florida on February 22. But yeah, the focus is to get a touring group of road dogs together and take it to the streets of the world. We are talking to people, seeing what we can make happen. But I definitely miss my booking and management teams. I’m finding out DIY is WAY harder outside the punk rock universe. But we’ll stay Jake and Ellwood on this.
As a musician, what part of the process do you enjoy the most? Writing, producing, performing live, etc.?
I love every aspect of the whole thing as a creative endeavor. Playing live is the best part though for sure. There’s nothing like playing for people whose 1st language is not your own and seeing them latch on to what you’re playing. Music is our closest invention to magical things we wish existed. And music is our strongest bridge to the places in our heads we want to get to.
Official Website: thesmokebossmilitia.com
Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpYDvb8RLdh1_K5JTcj8fSQ