Monique Powell Has Revived Save Ferris—But Not Everyone is Happy
"Isn't the view great?!" Monique Powell quips, her pogo stick-esque persona masking fatigue. It's late in the afternoon, and the Save Ferris singer sits at an outdoor table at Encino's Lakeside Restaurant & Lounge along with her bassist, Gordon Bash, and manager, Chris Trovero. Ducks squawk just a few feet away, angrily demanding snacks from a family of tourists.
Clad in an all-black ensemble, Powell has sat shiva for about a week following her father's Jan. 9 death. She cuts a much more diminutive character these days than during Save Ferris' late-1990s reign, when the big-voiced gal dominated stages in Southern California with the verve of a Shag princess and the elegance of a chanteuse. The band members are in the middle of promoting their first new EP in more than a decade. In a few days, the video for "New Sound," shot at her house, would get shared online.
Powell shares that she's nervous about the release when loud string music suddenly screeches through the restaurant. What was normal chitchat turns into a shoutfest better-suited to the Doll Hut. "It's like the world doesn't want us all to talk," Powell slyly remarks.
Many ska fans wholeheartedly endorse that thought. Save Ferris was never the biggest combo, but they remain one of the most beloved. From selling their five-song 1996 EP, Introducing Save Ferris, out of car trunks after magnetic live shows to getting signed to Epic Records, they epitomized the giddy heyday of the 1990s Orange County sound. Their remake of Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen" cemented the pink-haired, zaftig Powell as the Next Big Thing; they scored a cameo in 10 Things I Hate About You and had songs licensed for everything from Mark Wahlberg's The Big Hit to 7th Heaven.
But the years of kinetic performances, grueling tours and band in-fighting wore Save Ferris out. In 2003, guitarist/lead writer Brian Mashburn, saxophonist Eric Zamora and bassist Bill Uechi left to form their own group, and Powell wandered from project to project while a degenerative spinal condition, left untreated because of a lack of health insurance, wrecked her body. Although three doctors advised against it ("You could sing, or you could walk, and you may not be walking in six years," they told her), she finally underwent risky surgery in 2013, then dramatically announced to the world that Save Ferris was returning.
"If I came out of it alive and able to walk and able to sing, I was going to bring Save Ferris back," Powell says defiantly. "I relearned how to walk and literally had to learn how to hold my head up again. It's still work every day, but that was why I brought it back."
Kind of. A much-ballyhooed, sold-out show at the Pacific Amphitheatre during the Orange County Fair billed as a reunion only included Powell. She claims she contacted former members in advance; they say she didn't. They sued her over the right to use the name; she responded with a countersuit. Litigation kept Powell and her estranged band mates in limbo over who owned Save Ferris—not just the music or name, but the future of the group itself.
"It wasn't my intention to ever move forward without the guys," she says. "Unfortunately, that's how it ended up. I had no control over that. But it's in the past now, and I don't think about it anymore."
After more than two years of legal hell—which became fodder for gossip sites such as TMZ and Perez Hilton—Powell won the rights to the band's name, brand and social-media pages, and she also saw her name credited on some of the older songs. But to this day, she remains loathed by many in the ska community, from former friends and fans to a new generation who wasn't even born when Save Ferris was ripping through Side By Side in Huntington Beach, the Barn in Riverside, the Glass House in Pomona and anywhere where two-tones could hop. They've deemed her a Judas, a Jezebel—and worse. There were even Tumblr pages such as Fake Ferris created to troll as nastily as possible.
Powell is past that, she says, and is instead focusing her energies on the new album, Checkered Past, and a March 26 show at the new House of Blues in Anaheim. But the memory of the battle to bring back Save Ferris still stings. Terms of the agreement (signed by Mashburn, Zamora, Uechi, trombonist Brian Williams and drummer Evan Kilbourne) prevent Powell from commenting beyond what's publicly known. Multiple emails and Facebook messages to Starpool (the current band of Mashburn, Zamora and Uechi), Starpool's management and Mashburn weren't returned.
"They were my best friends," Powell quietly says about the former Save Ferris lineup.
After a brief pause, she continues, "Touring with the old band members was so much fucking fun. It was a blast. But it was a dysfunctional relationship."
* * * * *
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Save Ferris was peppy, positive and immediately nostalgic, and their songs still stick. "Come On Eileen" is what they'll play at 20-year high-school reunions across Orange County this fall to get everyone on the dance floor instead of "Just a Girl" or "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)." Their music wasn't as ska/punk as third-wave peers Reel Big Fish and the Aquabats, instead fusing genres including jazz in a straightforward fashion that leaned more toward melodic rock.
And the anchor was Powell. If Gwen Stefani was cool and calculated, Powell was unabashed glee, from her leopard-print tops to her go-go hair. After Kat Corbett played "New Sound" on KROQ's Locals Only program last month, Kevin and Bean remarked how it was great to have them back. In December, Bean named Save Ferris' "Christmas Wrapping" as one of his favorite Christmas songs, adding, "I miss this band! Come back, Monique!"
Orange County outgrew third-wave ska, though, and Save Ferris split long after the fad was over. But Powell forged on, self-financing one final tour titled "For the Fans" in 2003, which culminated with an appearance at Ska Summit in Las Vegas that the band's press release says inspired a "thunderously positive response" from concertgoers. Powell went on to cameo on records by the Used, Hilary Duff and Goldfinger and formed the Mojo Wire with guitarist Patrick Ferguson in 2007, which lasted less than a year. She also took music classes and performed in small musical-theater productions that she says "was nothing to write home about.
"All the years I took off from Save Ferris, I never forgot the band," she says. "I always felt like there was something unfinished, like our fans deserved something more. I never forgot about them. So bringing the band back was [something] I naturally felt like I needed to do."
The new lineup started thanks to a 2012 wedding attended by Powell and Bash. She was handling the music for the reception and asked a keyboardist she knew, Alex Burke, to join her. He recommended Bash to help fill out the lineup. The bassist so impressed her that she told him about a project she was working on: reviving Save Ferris.
"I knew who Save Ferris were from growing up in LA," says Ferguson, whom Powell also asked to audition. "I've always been a punk rocker, and when the third wave of ska thing came out, I was into all those bands also. It was hard, with punk and those ska bands being on the same bill, not to get into that music."
He isn't worried about any fan backlash. "I wasn't looking to come in and fill Brian [Mashburn]'s shoes. It's tough when there's controversy, and it's tough when there are people out there who are actively trying to throw shade on it. Mo is my friend, and even if I was just a hired gun, I wouldn't really care too much. At the end of the day, I get up there and listen to her just belt."
Ferguson, Burke, Bash and others joined Powell at the 2013 Pacific Ampitheatre show to rave reviews. But even before the performance, Save Ferris fans hit them hard. Ska Joe wrote on Facebook, "I really hope this knock off [sic] band looses [sic] the court case and gets sued by the actual Save Ferris." Another wrote, "Monique is a crazy bitch . . . That is all."
Things got so heated that Save Ferris had 15 people overseeing its Facebook page, with Powell serving as the overall administrator and sometimes joining in the fracas. "I was involved at the time in it," she admits. "But most important to me at that time was writing songs because I really don't like social media because of the level of narcissism that you have [to] embody on it. It's not fun for me.
"The problem is, as a musician, this is my business," Powell adds. "My Facebook, Instagram and web page is my place of business, and people were disparaging my business. I reserve the right to refuse anyone. Since everyone has a right to their opinion, we left those comments up for a week or two and took them down."
She tried to rebuild the band, but the lawsuit put Powell in a cash crunch. To help jumpstart the effort, Powell organized a Pledge Music campaign in November 2015 to raise funds for an EP in August 2016. The effort reminded her of the early years with Save Ferris, when she managed and booked shows, days she describes as the "happiest of my life."
Doing it all again proved more arduous this time. "Being back at this and restarting and trying to find a manager again at almost 40 years old—and find people who would take me seriously—wasn't easy," she says. "Everything finally changed when we got management. I was like, 'Now we could finally do this.'"
But even the Pledge Music campaign became a battleground. Fan Pascal De Maria questioned the structure and legitimacy of the band. "How do we know if the music is worth any money?" he asked in a comment. "We've never heard this band before; we've only heard Monique's voice when she was in another band by the same name."
"We see that you're from Orange County and a complete misogynist, that's why," someone with access to the Save Ferris Pledge Music account replied. "Why don't you ask the same of Reel Big Fish (one of your favs) or any other male front [sic] bands without the same, exact bands as the beginning? Hope you'll donate now, since your question has been answered, dick."
De Maria says he has no regrets about his critique. "If she said, 'Monique Powell is back, and Monique Powell is playing Save Ferris songs,' no one would care," he explains. "But it's not really Save Ferris. To bill it as Save Ferris is disingenuous."
* * * * *
Save Ferris live, November 1996
Photo courtesy of #SkaParade
The rancor on the band's social-media platforms has simmered down. Fans had to decide whether to support Powell's new version of Save Ferris or move on with Starpool.
"It's almost like it's James Bond," Bash says. "The Bond brand is still James Bond. You'll still go to see that movie. Save Ferris is still Save Ferris. You might change the actor, but it's still Bond. Sure, the music is still nostalgic, but it still moves into the future."
Powell was terrified no one would support the Pledge Music campaign; instead, it surpassed its original $10,000 goal by 176 percent. "It's hard enough to start a business, let alone a band with no capital," she says.
Funding solved, she moved on to another problem: The lengthy lawsuit sapped Powell's mental energy. Writing didn't flow as naturally as it did during her younger years. Having previously written from a performance perspective rather than honing a studio-crafted sound, she couldn't quite replicate those old bursts of energy into new material. "When I first started writing for this album, I felt so depleted emotionally and creatively," she recalls. "I was so lost, had no idea where to start and had no fucking idea if I'd bounce back from all this. I felt so insecure on many levels. I was in a victim's place at the time. I felt like I had been beat down completely, and all of that changed over the next two years because of my band mates."
Powell and former saxophone player Joe Berry began writing new songs once a week over lunch. The new Save Ferris then took a retreat near Lake Arrowhead for 10 days to write and work on song ideas. "I like collaborating with people when we write," Powell says. "I loved writing with Brian, because he's a great writer.
Besides sussing out material, highlights also included Bash noodling around with a ukulele with his foot and a run-in with a pesky raccoon that almost sabotaged everything. "It was running around outside at 2 in the morning," Powell says with a wry grin. "We were all up drinking and thought someone was trying to break in. We peeked through the blinds, and the raccoon went up to the window and made a face like [the gopher in] Caddyshack. We made sure not to open the door at night again."
Bash remembers sessions in the rustic house for a different reason. "My car made it up the mountain. I got out, they opened the door, I walked over and said, 'Hey, guys!'" he recalls. "Then Patrick said, 'Dude your car is on fire!' and there was smoke under the hood. It was toast. It was, like, I got up there in time before it was cooked, almost like getting to the house when I did made things meant to be."
Car trouble aside, the retreat succeeded. Powell's aim was for each song to have an individual personality. Eventually, three new songs—a deep blend of ska and dub on "New Sound" (which features the Specials' Neville Staple), the rapidfire '90s, punk-infused "Do I Even Like You?" and "Golden Silence" emerged from that period. And her father even sang on the tender, reggae-infused "Goodbye Brother." "It was his last best day," Powell says. His health rapidly deteriorated from prostate cancer.
The tunes gave the band the confidence that it could forge forward without being saddled by the earlier lineup's legacy. "It became really fun and free," Powell says. "As time went on, it became easier and easier. I started feeling like myself again. By the time we went into the studio with [producer/Oingo Boingo bassist John Avila], I was ready."
* * * * *
Fairly or not, this Save Ferris know they're being judged against the earlier incarnation's success. Powell and Bash discuss their recently shot video for "New Sound," pulling up the just-final version on Powell's iPhone. They have transitioned from raw, peppy and youthful to brassy, spunky and polished.
Her goals for the aptly titled Checkered Past were to honor her favorite material from Introducing Save Ferris. "I love the young, raw nature of it," she says of that maiden effort. She and her band mates strive to ensure they respect the Save Ferris legacy while moving it forward.
"There was a lot of preparation that went into [the album] and education, and you're just trying to figure out the direction I wanted to go in and I thought the fans would like," she explains as she takes another sip of coffee. "And also what's going to be relevant, if that's even possible. I was really scared in the beginning. It was a bundle of fear and hesitation since it's been so long since I've written a Save Ferris song."
Save Ferris 2.0's first shows proved the majority of casual fans couldn't care less if Powell is the only remaining member from the glory years. In 2016, the band played a sold-out show at the Echo in Los Angeles, headlined at the Santa Monica Pier, performed at ska festivals in Mexico City and Indonesia, and even opened for Stefani ("We joked how we never managed to meet each other after all these years," Powell quipped) at the final Irvine Meadows shows.
"I saw that line at the Echo that went around the corner, and it was like, 'Are they here to see us?'" she says. "It was a really nice way to get started again."
"It's so different playing there versus Mexico City and Indonesia," Bash adds. "It's hot and sweaty, and you can see every face there. Playing those huge shows to more than 30,000 people was incredible. But we're just excited to get to do these more intimate shows to start things out."
The band's first extensive tour as a unit has met with mixed reviews. The Sun-Sentinel wrote, "The band seemed genuinely happy to be back on the stage. It's clear that Save Ferris still has what it takes."
PopMatters disagreed, stating, "The pop was lacking" at the band's New York City gig.
But Powell is happy. She's moved on from the naysayers and negativity, preferring to look at what she's accomplished since reviving Save Ferris. And coming home to where it all began is validation for everything.
"A year ago, I was doing this all by myself," she says. "I was managing the band, doing the road managing, everything. All I give a shit about is this band. I spent the darkest years of my life fighting for this band, and there's nothing that can fucking happen in my life right now that's going to stop me because I'm not afraid of anybody."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.