Fireballs of Freedom: Lighting up again

by Jake Werrion

The Shakedown will welcome back Fireballs of Freedom to Bellingham later this month for a night of psych-punk frenzied mayhem that will blow your mind. You might have seen them last year at the Green Frog when they opened for the Mono Men at Carl Ratliff’s 40th birthday show (but more than likely you missed out since tickets sold out in 20 minutes), or maybe you’ve never heard of them since they’ve been largely inactive for a number of years. The important thing is, Fireballs of Freedom are Bellingham veterans, four guys who dug their heels deep into the 3B’s stage and released two full length albums on Bellingham’s Estrus records, and they’re picking things up again in full force.
The original Fireballs are Kelly Gately and Von Wenner (both on guitar and vocals), Sammy James (drums), and Troy Warling (bass). They formed in the early 90s in Missoula, MT as a punk band called Honky Sausage, and built a following and did some touring. They felt the name may have been too much of a “college town party name” and didn’t fit the direction they were heading in, so they started kicking around new ideas. In 1995, while on tour with the Reverend Horton Heat, a radio DJ referred to them as “the true fireballs of freedom, Honky Sausage,” and with that, the band had their new name.
They continued to play and tour, leaving a legacy of heavy punk, psychedelic, rock and hazy, crazed after parties. They weighed the pros and cons of moving to Seattle, and then in 1998, they decided to relocate to Portland, largely under the influence of the Dead Moon’s legendary Fred Cole. Portland’s scene was more optimistic and grittier, and seemed a more natural fit for the band.
The guys became acquainted with Bellingham through tours and connections with local bands, but their professional relationship to this fair city came from a happy union with Estrus Records. After moving to Portland, they cut their first full length album, the New Professionals, with Empty records. Dave Crider (of Mono Men) was present during the sessions and suggested doing a single with Estrus. The band ended up cutting their next two albums (Total F***ing Blowout and Welcome to the Octogon) with Estrus and FoF etched their names into Bellingham.
FoF have always held a high regard for integrity, and not taking themselves too seriously. A sort of “people’s band,” their highest priority is giving a great show, not focusing on hitting it big by sacrificing their ethics. The infamous Everclear incident illustrates this quality; in 1999 FoF were slated to headline a show in Portland and were informed that Everclear wanted to play with them… rather, Everclear was going to play with them, or FoF wouldn’t play at all. It wasn’t anything personal, but FoF felt (quite correctly) that the styles of music were just too different, that the audience would be there for Everclear and FoF wouldn’t fit, so they humbly relented the night. Everclear’s Art Alexakis went on the radio later and verbally trashed FoF for not taking the opportunity, but the truth was that they weren’t comfortable playing a show that didn’t belong to them anymore.
In December of 2000, bassist Tim Warling left the band and moved back to Missoula to pursue a career in medicine. The band found a happy fit with Jason Paulucci, and continued touring actively until 2005. There was no single reason for their split, and in fact, they never officially broke up, rather, they took a break that just ended up lasting a long time. Families, other projects (Kelly’s in Leaders and Sammy’s in Lords of Falconry), plus work and years of touring can slow things down.
After playing a few random reunion shows in Missoula and Portland (plus the one at the Green Frog) over the last couple of years, they are now hard at work with a new bass player named Adrian Makins (whose playing marries Sammy’s demanding drumming perfectly). The band will release a new full length album later this year, its first new recording in 13 years (since 2001’s Welcome to the Octagon), and is heading in a more psych heavy direction.
Fireballs of Freedom shows have a certain legacy to them, a legend that’s full of off the wall energy, insanity, and spontaneity. That legacy is still strong, and promises that their show April 26 at the Shakedown will be unforgettable.