When King's X bassist and singer Doug Pinnick encouraged the Fondue Monks, one of Houston's most familiar and stable bands, to get out of town and play more, he certainly couldn't have imagined how the Monks would finally accomplish this task: through the auspices of Big Tobacco.

Last October the Monks were voted the "champion" of the Houston market and, as a result, earned a chance to participate in the national Lucky Strike Band to Band Competition. The quartet now will play several "regional" gigs, starting this weekend at Fitzgerald's, against other major-market winners, with the top vote-getter taking home the grand prize of $15,000. The Monks already have secured a place on the Lucky Strike compilation CD of unsigned bands.

Some might think of it as accepting blood money, but in recent years, relatively unknown bands have been the beneficiaries of legal settlements that have restricted cigarette companies from advertising in more traditional avenues. As an alternative way to reach young smokers, these companies are pumping funds into musicians and clubs, where Big Tobacco can shake its cancer sticks free of government interference. "No matter what you think, this is helping bands around the country," Monks guitarist Steve Olson says. "Plus, we have no shame!"

The Fondue Monks came together in 1992 when drummer Ronnie Zamorano and Olson were playing in the blues band Jumbo Turner, while Rozzano Zamorano was thumping bass for a cover group, the Quick. Denver Courtney, home from Baylor University and blowing off steam at the Banana Bay in Conroe, noticed something familiar about the Quick's bassist, who was returning his curious looks. During a set break, the two realized they had attended Spring Branch Elementary School together.

Courtney, who had written "a lot of poetry" in college and wanted to try his hand at singing, talked with Rozz about forming their own band. They convinced Olson and Ronnie to jettison Jumbo, and the quartet soon began woodshedding. Their first show was at the now-defunct 8.0 club in Shepherd Plaza, which led to a regular slot at the Marquis II in West U, playing to crowds consisting mainly of University of Houston and Rice football players.

"We were on this high, and we thought it was great -- to play music and get paid for it," Courtney says. But not all of the band's fond memories stand up to time. "We have some video footage from that time, and now we think, 'Oh, my God! That's horrible!' "

Constant gigging solidified the group, and on the band's 1995 groove-oriented debut, The Fondue Monks, and on the more sharply honed 1998 follow-up, Baila Toca, the quartet developed a jam-friendly sound. Courtney's vocals invited many comparisons to Jim Morrison, which became both a selling point and a creative limitation. These days, however, in concert and on catchy, in-progress tracks like "Portrait of a Man" and "Falling Down," he has firmly left the Lizard King behind.

Before setting foot in the studio for their next record, the Monks are "oiling up" new material on stage with a specific goal in mind. "There's a lot of playing on those [two] albums, and it's great, but nothing for radio," Rozz says. "Our new stuff will be more geared to the average listener."

That means the new music will have more structure, fewer notes and a heavier concentration on melodies. The writing process still will be handled collaboratively. "We just need one song on this next record on the radio to blow open the doors," says Rozz, who's also trying to blow open doors with his new solo CD, Eudamonia (see "Ace of Bass"). "And I know we'll have two or three like that."

But for now, the Fondue Monks are concentrating on their series of shows for the Band to Band Competition. "I think it was great for Houston to show people from Chicago and other cities that we do have some good local music," Rozz says, noting that but for a small margin, Moses Guest or the Norma Zenteno Band could be in the Monks' position.

So even if you were disenfranchised with the recent presidential debacle, here's one election in which the popular vote really does count. It's also an election in which the process is about as convoluted as a Miami-Dade voting booth: Each concertgoer at the Fitzgerald's show signs up to receive a free Band to Band compilation CD that will include an 800 number. After listening to all the groups on the CD, you're supposed to call the number and cast a vote for your favorite. No chances for hanging chads here, but perhaps they will be replaced by another frustration: the busy signal.

Ace of Bass

Had it been released in 1963, it might have been called The Many Moods of Rozz. Indeed, with his solo CD, Eudamonia, Fondue Monks bassist Rozzano Zamorano hopes to show the versatility of rock's most overlooked instrument. "I looked at this project as a real challenge. It allowed me to put the bass in a different context and play more freely than I do with the Monks," he says, quickly adding that he has no desire to leave the group. "I feel I can play to a more intimate part of the soul by playing my bass just solo."

Recorded in four days in June and October at Sugar Hill Studios with producer Dan Workman (ZZ Top, Destiny's Child), Eudamonia boasts ten tracks that consist -- save for the occasional studio chatter, atmospheric noises (pigs, TV newsman, clocks) and one spoken-word section -- entirely of bass solos. Encompassing fast rock grooves ("Bumping"), George Porter-like funk ("The Strut," "Voting in Florida"), Spanish-style sounds ("Forever Waiting") and more quiet, emotive numbers (the excellent "Good Morning"), it does show the bass's breadth, although it could be a difficult sell.

"I am sure that people will be skeptical, but I think people are ready for recordings like this," he says. "And with the Internet, people are now enjoying music that they never had access to before." He also points out the presence of such magazines as Bass Player and Bassics, which support a healthy four-string thumping community.

Zamorano is planning solo gigs in Houston and New York to support Eudamonia. "I think the bass is an emotional instrument and has a lot to say when presented right. To me, some of the tunes get really spiritual," he says. "And I think it will be really cool if only two people get it. And if not, I will try again."

Eudamonia will be available as a download from beginning March 1 and will be in stores shortly thereafter.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero