Back in the late ’80s, amidst a bubbling music scene in the South Bay, the Frontier Wives led the pack as San Jose’s greatest hope for a breakout band. What fans loved about them—the duality of playing simple, drunken rock songs and writing well-crafted, subtly complex, clever tunes—may very have been their undoing. No one, including the band members, could figure out a proper label for their music. “There was no scene or genre that we could hang our hat on and say that we were a part of,” says drummer Lex van den Berghe. “It often felt like it was us against the world. It was the Frontier Wives and everyone else.”
The band played all over the Bay Area, including Santa Cruz, winning a devoted following for its singular sound. Its influences ran the gamut, including power-pop, country, punk, college radio and heavy metal, but really the Frontier Wives was a rock & roll band through and through. It just didn’t look like or fit in with the other rock bands at the time.
“Frontier Wives were the garage sale version of local rock,” says lead singer Scott Long. “We got a lot of flack from people who were more polished than us.”
Punk rock was a big influence on the Wives. At one point, early in the band’s career, Long met some of the Bay Area punk bands. He was inspired by how these guys were totally willing to mix in some metal and country.
“That propelled me to mix genres. That opened my wanting to push the limits,” Long says.
Punk rock also taught them how to be a band, basically encouraging them to be totally unpretentious, to walk on stage with a “like us for who we are or fuck you” attitude. They had no label supporting them, so rather than sitting around waiting to get signed, they did everything they could to make their band a success all on their own.
“Everything from T-shirts to promotion to booking tours, everything we did ourselves. It was very punk rock. The Wives, I think, were the most punk rock band that wasn’t actually punk rock,” van den Berghe says.
It wasn’t that they were against signing to a major label. They just weren’t seen as marketable. “I was an overweight singer, playing not radio-friendly music. We were not ready for prime time or MTV,” Long says.
With no label support, they worked really hard for over a decade. They booked several tours and recorded a full-length album, with only the help and support of friends. This was all before the age of Pro Tools and the Internet too, so these were not easy, inexpensive endeavors. As the years wore on, their gung-ho attitude waned.
“There comes a point where you’ve literally hit your head on the same wall for 11 years and gets tired. I still struggle with exactly why we didn’t do more with it than we did. It wasn’t for a lack of trying,” van den Berghe says.
The Frontier Wives never officially broke up, though the members have moved on to other things. Long moved to New York and has become a successful promoter in what is arguably one of the most competitive live music markets. Van den Berghe went on to star in seasons 3 and 8 of CBS’s Survivor and has played in several other bands, including the Maids of Honor with Smashmouth guitarist Greg Camp. But still, over the past quarter-century, Frontier Wives has continued to get together every once in a while to play the occasional show, always to a packed house.
“A lot of people still listen to the Wives now. I think the reason we’ve played shows consistently every 18 months is just because there’s been so much outside interest,” van den Berghe says.
They will be celebrating an impressive 25-year anniversary at the Blank Club in San Jose on June 3 and at the Catalyst Atrium on June 4. These will be their final shows. To commemorate the event, Long and van den Berghe have rounded up every person who has ever been in the Frontier Wives to play these shows. Also on the bill at the Catalyst are Stryder Callison and the Jackwagons.