20 Years of Photonz
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
When a band from a small town in Alaska forms, there is no plan to last 20 years. Music happens. Opportunities arise. Chances are taken. Lives change. People move on. When six musicians are factored into that equation, the possibilities are infinite, yet the odds of still playing together are quite slender.
The Photonz began in Girdwood in 1997 and had a seven-year run as a band.They developed a strong following, and there would always be a contingent of Girdwood fans no matter where the shows were. During those years, the Photonz went around Alaska multiple times and successfully toured the Lower 48.
Then decision time arrived. The band could take it to the next level of touring or disband. The band wasn’t comfortable with the level of commitment required to move forward, so the Photonz folded. Members moved elsewhere, but the band never went away.
Every year since, the Photonz get together near the end of ski season to play a three-night stand at the Sitzmark. This year marked the band’s 20th anniversary.
The Photonz would eventually like to record a new, self-produced album to include songs accumulated over past years. Their only studio album, Cosmic Party, is out of print and hard to find. Their album Photonz Live comes from a tour recorded by Jonas Moser, who works sound at the Sitzmark. There is also a bootleg series, Call Limited, which comes from tours.
The Gazette and the Photonz met in the Sitzmark’s Green Room for an interview about the band’s history, what keeps them together, and a few highlights and lowlights. The six of us packed ourselves into the ‘cozy’ setting, with some standing and some sitting. It was obvious the band enjoyed recalling events together with members adding interesting details to tales from the past.
The Photonz interviewed were: Pete Townsend (g,v); Romero Begay (g,v); Steve Norwood (g,v); Ben Trocki (d); and Benjamin Robinson (perc.,g,v). Tony Restivo (b,v) was not available.
Editor’s Note: The interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Gazette: What led band to form?
Norwood: “It started at Max’s when Maxine’s was Max’s a long time ago. Tony was hosting first.”
Begay: “It was Tony Restivo’s Acoustic Jam Night. Me and Pete, we met in ’95 up in Denali Park. We hung out. We were picking a little bit. He came back a year later and moved to Girdwood. Stevie was out and about, and we asked him to come pick with us.”
Norwood: “I heard you [Pete] play “Dark Hollow” at Jam Night, and I said ‘Dude, teach me that song. He was pretty much like NO.’”
Townsend: “It took me a little while to go up the road with Steve. When I did, it was pretty fabulous.”
Norwood: “‘C’mon man, you’re my dishwasher at Seven Gs. Teach me that after work some time.’ And then one day we went up to my cabin and started playing tunes. That was the beginning.”
Townsend: “It was us three at first. We pretty much made Restivo join the band. We had two bass players at one point in time. Dawn Venters, she helped us go through the period where Tony wasn’t able to commit. Our buddy Kevin Penny told us about Benjamin Robinson.”
Norwood: “I knew Ben from the Pond Café at the hotel. We had cooked together and worked in both lived as vagrants in the same spot in the woods in Girdwood at one point back before the band had formed.”
Robinson: “I came up for a month-long visit to see some friends. Kevin Penny told me about these guys, and I went ‘yeah.’”
Norwood: “Kevin was the guy who was running Max’s at the time, so he was the manager when we were spinning out songs and ideas. We convinced this guy to come up and hang out with us. By the summer of ’97 we had formed and booked gigs, did the whole state. Pete and I took my Subaru all the way to Wisconsin to pick up his old band’s PA so we would have speakers and a soundboard.”
Townsend: “Our first gig as the Photonz was here on Super Bowl Sunday.”
Gazette: After the first year, what kept the band moving forward?
Norwood: “We started travelling. We went to Hawaii and toured twice. We did a six-month long Lower 48 tour. We called it quits in ’03 officially. We’ve been friends ever since, so we get together when we can and make these reunions happen. The music lives on.”
Begay: “At the very beginning, it was exploring Alaska, going to music festivals all across the state that first summer.”
Townsend: “We had this great crowd backing that would follow us. We’d have about 30-40 people cruise around with us.”
Norwood: “Everywhere we went, Girdwood people would show up.”
Gazette: Why disband in 2003?
Townsend: “It was a hard road. In ‘01-‘02 we went on tour in the Lower 48. We were in Whistler on Sept. 11, 2001. We wake up to the World Trade Center being attacked. We almost cancelled the tour there.
Begay: “It turned out to be a pretty successful tour. We headed out with a handful of gigs. Our friend was our band manager. We guided him how to book us gigs. By the time it was over, we did about 74 shows. People were helping us out and telling us places to play. Things were coming together. In 2003, it was either go for it or not. It just didn’t happen.”
Gazette: What are some standout moments as a band – highlights and lowlights?
Norwood: “We got to play with Bill Kreutzman in Hawaii. He’s the drummer for the Grateful Dead. We got to open for him, and he sat in and jammed with us. He invited us back to do another show with him. We’ve been in and out of shows with the Rowan Brothers, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush, Blues Traveler. We’ve had some moments. I went to jail while on tour, a DUI in Canada. I had the gear van impounded. It was beautiful.”
Townsend: “Rome stole a taxi in Homer when he was blackout wasted.”
Norwood: “It’s still infamous. Every time I go to Homer someone asks me, “Oh you’re with that band aren’t you?’ We won’t tell you about Tony. He’ll have to do his own dirty work on that ‘cause he’s done some quality stuff too. We were in a hotel in Fairbanks once for three or four nights. The woman from downstairs came up and knocked on the door Saturday afternoon. She was like, ‘I’m not gonna complain. I just want to see what is going on up here.’ At that point, we had a pile of beer cans the size of a refrigerator in the kitchen corner. We had a mini-frisbee golf course with CDs set up inside this room. People were sleeping on the floor. Music blaring. We were a party show.”
Norwood: “One time in Denali, we played an employee party, and they gave us two rooms in this little hotel unit. Someone figured out how to open up all the hotel rooms with the credit card sliding in the door. The next day, there are employees, friends, people sleeping in almost every room. Our manager is running around outside, ‘Get up! We have to get out of here!’ I’m in the room I’m supposed to be in with the keg in the bathtub. I look down the hallway, and there is a suitcase in front of every door and a naked person sticking a head out a door wondering why this ruckus is going on. They were moving a bus load of people into this hotel right then, and this hotel is destroyed. Pete and I helped ourselves to the employee breakfast and the mess hall. We were pretty much run out of Denali.”
Gazette: What’s it like playing in front of Girdwood?
Begay: “It’s awesome. It’s family and friends. It’s a nice vibe.”
Trocki: “When we play these shows, it brings a lot of people together, and it’s a really good time. There’s a really good reaction. It’s super fun. It still captures a lot of people, including us.”