“It felt like an itch that we couldn’t scratch for two years,” says the Never HasBeens frontman David St. Paul. “We had so many songs ready to go.”
Like musicians worldwide, the Never HasBeens were forced to step away from performing live for nearly two years; their frustration was exacerbated by the fact that the trio had just formed and believed they had something extraordinary. The vibe was natural, like it was meant to be. The first time they got together and jammed, it was lightning in the bottle.
St. Paul (guitar, vocals), Loren Gustafson (bass, vocals) and Gary Montrezza (drums) are all seasoned musicians who have been playing in bands for decades. But it never got to the point where they could focus solely on careers in music—St. Paul works in healthcare and is an instructor at Cabrillo College, Gustafson is also in the education field and Montrezza is the CEO of a San Jose nonprofit. So, at this point, the threesome isn’t expecting that big break or waiting to be discovered; they’re all just doing something they love without any expectations.
“I write [songs] because I have to,” says St. Paul. “Things just come to me, so I don’t have a choice.”
St. Paul already had about 30 songs in his back pocket when the outfit first got together in 2018, and Gustafson also had a bunch of tunes. The trio immediately recorded a three-song EP featuring “Little Demons,” which sounds like it could be a lost Elvis Costello song.
Before they could officially introduce themselves to Santa Cruz, everything was locked down. But they were able to use the time to hone their sound and connect on a more profound musical level. They also had time to pepper their live set with some choice covers—deep cuts from bands like the Clash and Wilco. By the time restrictions were lifted, St. Paul, Gustafson and Montrezza were ready to record their full-length debut.
“We were fortunate because post-Covid, studios weren’t very busy,” St. Paul says. “[Suspect Studios in San Jose] was looking for talent to come in and record, so we went for it.”
From April through July, the band recorded and came out the other side with We Will Not Be Unheard, a country punk-alt-rock hybrid intertwined with the fingerprints of Santa Cruz. St. Paul was inspired to pen “Radio Songs,” a catchy indie throwback to early 90s MTV “Buzz Bands” like the Gin Blossoms, after hearing Wilco’s cover of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” on KZSC. “Radio songs they came out of my window/‘Waterloo Sunset’ covered by Wilco,” St. Paul sings. There’s even a shout-out to the local radio station: “As the radio waves began to rise from the left of the dial/The ‘Great Eighty-Eight’ still survives.”
“KZSC is a huge influence,” St. Paul says. “They have great radio shows up there, and still play the old-school radio format that I grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s, so I appreciate them for that.”
Minus the rowdiness and heavy ingestion of illicit substances, St. Paul notes the Replacements as another influence, evident in the Never HasBeens’ post-punk “Question Mark.”
“Back in 1982, how was it for you?” St. Paul sings with a retro shakiness reminiscent of Paul Westerberg. Beyond the simplicity of the speedy pop-punk power chords, the trio nails the whole awkward youth themes that run throughout so much of what makes the Replacements relatable to millions of teens.
The We Will Not Be Unheard bookend “The Last” isn’t like any other tune on the record—not even close. The ballad employs a 6/8-time signature, a standard jazz tempo, and is a vault of emotions that sounds like it hasn’t been opened in decades: “This is the last tear I’ll cry, the last time I’ll ask to change your mind, the last thing I’ll ever do,” the trio sings in harmony. The trio isn’t made up of youngsters just getting started, so the concept of “The Last” drums up some heavy feelings in St. Paul.
“The song grabs me every time I hear it,” he says.
It’s been a long road for St. Paul as a songwriter who’s been at it since he was about 12, when he first started listening to Bob Dylan.
“I’ve gone through many evolutions, but Bob’s the guy who got me interested in writing,” he says.
St. Paul is dedicated to the art of crafting lyrics; he studies masters like Costello, John Lennon, Jeff Tweedy and others who have the uncanny ability to create weighty statements using a minimal number of words.
“I get lucky sometimes when I write something concise and to the point that gets my ideas across,” he says. “Also, when I started, I was always self-conscious about my singing, and I’d ask myself, ‘Is this appropriate? Do I want to make such personal statements?’ I have no problem making those statements now, because it’s who I am. When people appreciate the songs, that’s also a motivator, but it’s not why I write.”
On Sunday, Aug. 28, at 11:30am, Gustafson and St. Paul will share some of the new tunes on ‘Please Stand By’ on KPIG. The Never Hasbeens perform Saturday, Sept. 3 at 9pm at Coasters Bar & Grill at Boardwalk Bowl, 115 Cliff St, Santa Cruz. Free (complimentary CDs for attendees). boardwalkbowl.com.