Photo above: The El Caminos (L-R) JJ Garrison, DAvid Moore, Craig, Chmelewski, Paul E. Jones
Long before the Black Lips, Deerhunter or any of Atlanta’s other current indie-rock hopefuls, there were The El Caminos, a hard-driving, hard-living group of miscreants who blazed through the city’s mid-‘90s rock scene. Composed of vocalist JJ Garrison, guitarist Craig Chmelewski, bassist Paul E. Jones and drummer David Moore, the glam-influenced quartet once seemed destined to become the ATL’s Next Big Thing, until debauchery, death and a prison stint tore them asunder. After a series of sold-out reunion gigs, the band reunited to record the forthcoming Raised By Wolves, the album they had to abandon after Moore was arrested on drug-related charges. Here, Garrison and Moore tell the band’s Behind The Music-worthy tale in their own words…
JJ Garrison: In 1993, I was in the Go-Devils and Dave was in Magic Bone, and both of our bands broke up at the same time. We were two of the top bands in the Little 5 Points scene, so me and Dave didn’t want to stop yet. We decided to start a band together.
David Moore: All this Shoegazer stuff was going on at the time, so we decided to glam it up and do a T. Rex/New York Dolls/Dead Boys kind of thing.
JJ: We started wearing makeup, jewelry, cheetah pants, glittery shirts and all that ’70s glam stuff. [Laughs] There was a little Poison in there, but our idea was to get back to the Ramones era of CBGB’s-style punk rock and give people a show. We had a female bassist named Karen Alvarez, who we called The Colonel, for almost a year.
DM: We did the first album, Save My Soul Again, with a couple of friends who came in as session players, but it was mostly just me and JJ until Karen joined.
JJ: We started playing around the Southeast as a 3-piece in late ’94, and we did this show at The Point where we saw this guy in the crowd who looked like Malcolm Young of AC/DC. At that time I was playing guitar, and he came up after the show and asked if we were looking for another guitarist. We said, “Not really,” but we invited him to come over and try out.
DM: Then he tells us that he’s a package deal with his buddy Paul, who he’s been playing with since high school. They showed up for practice, jammed on a couple of songs and just kicked ass, so we had to figure out who was gonna fire The Colonel. [Laughs]
JJ: So then we had our 4-dude power rock band. We were all in our early twenties, and we were ready to take on the world. We started touring right away, from Texas to California and Mexico and back, kicking ass all over the place.
DM: Four guys in a van with all their gear and luggage on the road for two months at a time.
JJ: We actually picked up a rat in Hollywood! It jumped in the van somehow and we found it eating Starburst. We’d run into a town, see our friends, and they’d keep us drunk for days.
DM: The underground network was with us on those tours. We’d sleep on people’s couches and floors, or outside in the van. We were young, didn’t have any money, and didn’t have any jobs or houses back home, so we could just keep going.
JJ: It was awesome until our van started breaking down, then things started getting a little sketchy. We came back home, moved out to Buford Highway, Damon [Moore, Dave’s guitarist brother] joined the band and in late ’95 we started recording Double Lock & Bleed, which was probably our best album. That was around the time people in Atlanta were starting to get into rock again, so you had bands like D Generation and Nashville Pussy coming around a lot, and packed crowds for local bands like Pineal Ventana, Super X-13 and Gargantua.
DM: But the rock scene wasn’t as big as it is now. Then, in early 1999, Damon OD’d and died right when we were in the middle of recording our third record, Sons Of Evil. Instead of straightening up, I went hard in the other direction.
JJ: We were drowning our sorrows and basically closing our eyes to what happened for a good three or four years after Damon died. We all went deep into our own weird worlds, clinging to the band as our last rope to sanity. The band was what kept us going…
DM: Even though it was the vehicle that led us down that road in the first place!
JJ: When Sons Of Evil came out, we toured a lot, but I barely remember any of it. When I look back on that album, I remember making it, but a lot of the activities that went on around that time are foggy. It went on that way for a while, until Easy E [a.k.a. guitarist Eric Gagnon] came around.
DM: He produced Sons Of Evil, then about a year after Damon died he joined the band and toured with us on guitar.
JJ: When we got him in the band, we kinda kicked it into fifth gear and picked up right where we left off, getting messed up again and touring everywhere. We flew out to California and did a video shoot, and played Mexico so many times people started wanting our autographs. At one point we had Rick Rubin lined up to talk to us, but that never happened. There was an agent for the Black Crowes who’s a big-time music lawyer now that we had a couple of meetings with, but it never went anywhere. That’s when we started our own record label, Uncle Punk Records, to release Last Band Standing, which was the result of my brother Kevin coming back from Mexico, taking over all our management and promotion and getting our stuff online. We were like his four mules, and he was the caballero! [Laughs]
DM: He was responsible for getting us all together for photo shoots and that kinda stuff, but we were so messed up at the time that I don’t know how he ever put up with us.
JJ: Eventually the chicks in our life made us get our s— together. First Paul went off with Anastasia and stopped partying. When me and my wife Jackie started hanging out, we’d still have designated party time, but it wasn’t a whirlwind of seeing how much trouble we could get into. I had to be a normal person, so I just started backing off the throttle. We were trying to tell David he needed to slow down, but he wouldn’t listen.
DM: The year before I went to jail, I met this girl, who I’m still with now. She had a lot of money, so I didn’t have to work anymore. Then I got busted on an outstanding charge from 1997 that I’d blown off my probation for. They happened to catch up with me and ran my name on a routine traffic stop, and the next thing I know I’m in the pen looking at two years of hard time! [Laughs] I was in Walker State, just north of Rome, for 14 months. We didn’t even talk about putting the band back together for at least a year after I got out in 2004, because I was probably just as bad off as I’d been before I went in. But nobody knew about it because we weren’t playing together. Then Kiera and I started getting our s— together, and by that time Craig and Paul had bought the Johnny’s Pizza in Decatur, and JJ had his own painting business together. The guys were all getting married, and it was at JJ’s wedding that I talked to Paul, who was afraid if we got back together I’d turn into a huge screw-up again. During the reception, I caught him in a soft-hearted moment and it was like something out of The Godfather: “Paulie, I’m reaching out to ya over here!” [Laughs]
JJ: They kinda hugged and mended the fences, and in February of 2006 we decided to do a one-off comeback gig at the EARL. We sold it out and we kicked ass! It went so well that we decided to just keep going.
DM: We played another sold-out gig on St. Patrick’s Day and it was the same thing. It felt awesome! It was great being back on stage and feeling good about it. That’s when we started talking about finishing the record we’d been working on before I got locked up.
JJ: We’d recorded five of the 14 songs before he went to jail, so now we’re back to finish it up. Paul and I never stopped writing songs. We started working on it in summer of 2007, and it was like putting on an old comfortable boot. It was the same magic kind of thing as when Paul and Craig showed up that first night. The four of us just kinda fit together, and when we put it together, it’s like, BAM!