Wargirl returns: Long Beach band plays Alex’s in support of first album

Wargirl may be big in Europe, relatively speaking, but—and stop us if you’ve heard this before—the local band has yet to find as dedicated a fanbase in Long Beach. That could all change with the recent release of its first album, “Wargirl.” The local sextet, that looks like a ‘90s Benetton ad and combines dubby soul with danceable rock, plays a homecoming gig of sorts this Saturday, June 8, at Alex’s Bar.

The band, signed to a German label, Clouds Hill Recordings, has played to sold-out houses from Austria to England. Still, Wargirl flies somewhat under-the-radar here at home, a fact that hasn’t brought with it any noticeable hard feelings. In fact, while a lot of bands playing abroad claim Los Angeles as their base if they live within a 100-mile radius of Dodger Stadium, Wargirl has always made sure everyone understands they’re a Long Beach band.

“Long Beach has always been more of a working-class town,” said Wargirl founding member and Long Beach native Matt Wignall. “Everything was a bit more real and gritty here. There was no fancy, big budget music scene [and] no rich kids inheriting their parent’s creative legacy. The scene was always a bunch of scrappy people who were born here or came here because rent was cheap, and it was west of the 91 freeway.”

Wignall is a lifelong musician and touring vet with an unmistakable entrepreneurial spirit. He once had his own Long Beach-based record label, Jackson Rubio, and when that venture didn’t pan out, found work in photography and graphic design. Most recently he helped start a CBD oil line.

But through it all, the one constant was music. For the past decade or so, Wignall has recorded bands in the garage of his East Long Beach home while quietly tinkering on his own compositions. The space has been affectionately dubbed Tackyland Studios, cited in the title of Cold War Kids’ song, “Return to Tackyland” as a reference to the fact that the band recorded several of their biggest hits there.

“We had all ran into each other at shows… I just started recording them one day pretty much for free,” Wignall said. “For the next several years, I let them rehearse in my studio, and eventually we recorded what would become their breakout singles, ‘Hang Me Up to Dry’ and ‘Hospital Beds’. I’m very proud of that work we did. It was all heart and feeling at the time. Just all of us doing what we do with no pressure.”

Wargirl has its own roots with Tackyland. After the 2016 election, Wignall found himself chasing the idea of a band with a dub reggae and punk rock feel; the sound would have a sense of social criticism but with a pop edge. (Not surprisingly, he cites Bob Marley and The Clash as inspirations.)

Wignall quickly gathered together a group of ragtag professionals—drummer Jeff Suri is a chemist, bassist Tamara Raye is a mechanical engineer for Disneyland, keyboardist Enya Preston is a science laboratory tech and percussionist Erick Nieto is a Spanish translator—but just as the gang was preparing to sign a major record deal with Clouds Hill, their singer backed out.

What happened next was a fury of hectic “What do we do?” moments, bandmates and friends recommending potential singers, auditions being held and yet, they couldn’t find the right person. Then, Wignall came across the Instagram profile of a Long Beach singer named Samantha Parks.

Wargirl (left to right): Tamara Raye, Jeff Suri, Samantha Parks, Eric Nieto, Enya Preston and Matt Wignall. Photo courtesy of Wargirl/Facebook

Parks was working a variety of gigs at the time: yoga instructor, dancer, jazz vocalist. The daughter of James Lafayette “Bull” Parks, lead singer of 60s funk group Bull and the Matadors, who had a top-10 hit with the ’68 single, “The Funky Judge,” her experience as a performer and her old-soul music taste was a perfect fit for the group.

The band began recording in Costa Rica, where Wignall, an avid surfer, had friends. Once they returned, Wargirl was booked to tour Europe.

The sextet had released an EP called Arbolita and was told it was getting played on European radio stations and doing well on Spotify. They heard reports they were getting big in Austria. Still, there was that feeling of uncertainty. This could be one of those things where you walk in and play an empty room, right? Any musician who has been around long enough knows those pre-show jitters.

But their first show in Amsterdam dispelled those doubts.

“The first time we ever played the Paradiso in Amsterdam last September is unforgettable [T]he room was full of people all there to see Wargirl,” Parks said somewhat incredulously. “We were all on cloud nine after that night. It was a very eye-opening moment for everyone in the band.”

Wargirl recently released its first album.

Not only did they manage to get along on the road, but they wrote more music along the way. They travel well together and share a respect for one another as dedicated, hard-working individuals chasing a dream.

“I live by the thought that you can do whatever the hell you want with your life. You can absolutely have it all if you are willing to put in the time,” said Raye. “Push yourself to be uncomfortable with what you are playing and understand that frustration is analogous to learning. There are enough hours in the day to accomplish it all if your passions dictate how you prioritize the time.”

Her sentiments seemed to be shared by the rest of the group. Their music carries with it the energy of a group of people who just seem to bring good vibes. Maybe that’s why the band is resonating with audiences.

“The world needs positivity at this point in history,” Wignall said. “Music can be a powerful force for good, so we try and focus on ideas that transcend [the] politics of the day. We are also people who love and celebrate life though, so we write simple fun songs, as well. The world needs both.”

See Wargirl on Saturday, June 8 at Alex’s Bar at 2913 E. Anaheim St. at 9:30 pm. For more info, visit the Facebook event page here.

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Steve Lowery began his journalism career at the Los Angeles Times, where he planned to spend his entire career. God, as usual, laughed at his plans and he has since written for the short-lived sports publication The National, the L.A. Daily News, the Press-Telegram, New Times LA, the District and the OC Weekly. He is the Arts & Culture Editor for the Post, overseeing the Hi-lo.