“Monster Movie” is the Rainmakers’ seventh studio album, but for Bob Walkenhorst, it’s also the first.
He co-wrote three of the album’s 12 songs: “Who’s at the Wheel,” with drummer Pat Tomek; “Dogleg,” with bassist Rich Ruth; and “Save Some for Me,” with guitarist Jeff Porter. A fourth, “Believe in Now,” was written by Porter alone. That was all new terrain for a guy who once tended to be resolute about his solitary vision of a song.
“I used to be pretty dictatorial,” Walkenhorst said. “I’d have a pretty clear idea of what a song should sound like. But I’ve learned over the past few years that much better things can happen by not caring so much and by valuing the ideas of other people.”
Walkenhorst has also rediscovered the rewards of being in a band and indulging in its friendships and camaraderie.
“I think I’m a much nicer guy than I was in the early days of the band,” he said. “I value the guys more than I did 25 years ago.”
Saturday night at Knuckleheads, the Rainmakers will showcase for the first time in Kansas City the music on “Monster Movie,” a record that revives the band’s heyday vigor — it’s a rock record with lots of lyrical punch — but also casts the Rainmakers in a new light: as an ensemble of voices.
“Monster” is the follow-up to “25 On,” the album the Rainmakers released in 2011 to celebrate their silver anniversary and reunion tour. It was an occasion prompted by a 2010 tour of Norway by Walkenhorst and Porter, who have been playing together as a duo for more than a decade. “Our first show was in Oslo,” Walkenhorst said. “We did some of our own tunes, then we did a Rainmakers song, and the place went crazy, and I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this is still popular over here.’ ”
“Here” was Norway, where the Rainmakers had sustained some popularity even after the band broke up, first in 1990 and then again nine years later, after a four-year reunion.
“It made me think about the Rainmakers,” Walkenhorst said. “I’d really pushed the band back into my past. That chapter was over. And at that point I had no desire to play in a band again. But that trip brought it back to life: Those songs matter to people, so they should matter to me.”
So in 2011, the third version of the Rainmakers convened to record another record and launch a tour. “I thought if we were going to do a reunion, I should call everybody,” Walkenhorst said. He re-enlisted drummer Pat Tomek, and bassist Rich Ruth, who’d left the band in the early 1990s. He also contacted founding guitarist and songwriter Steve Phillips, a founding member of the Elders.
“I knew how busy Steve and the Elders were,” Walkenhorst said. “He declined and I understood.” So he brought in Porter, who was already familiar with much of the Rainmakers catalog. The initial plan was to tour Norway and resurrect all the old Rainmakers songs. “We weren’t going to do a record,” Walkenhorst said. “But the capitalist side of me came out: You’ve got to have new product to sell.”
So they recorded “25 On” in five days. “It went exceedingly well,” he said. “Writing came to me very fast.”
Then they set off on a tour of Norway and then parts of the U.S. for nearly three years.
“The whole thing went really well,” Walkenhorst said. “When it was over we said, ‘OK. Do we leave it here or see what the next step is.’ But we’d become a band again. We’d played a lot over the three years. Everyone really enjoyed playing together again. We all agreed we wanted to see what the next step was.”
Tomek said, “We only kept playing together because we enjoyed it so much. We all enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes between gigs it’s more like a bunch of friends out on vacation than a band on tour. I think that level of trust encourages collaboration.”
That next step was a new record, and that next record was all about collaboration. Going back to some of the Rainmakers’ early 1990s albums, Walkenhorst relinquished some control.
“Back in the old days, in the ’80s, Bob would do complete demos of the songs and want us to re-create those parts,” Tomek said. “He loosened up a lot when we got back together for ‘Flirting With the Universe’ and really wanted us to play our interpretation of the song.”
“Now I work out a song on guitar, demo it and say, ‘Here. Do what you want to do,’ ” Walkenhorst said. “I wanted the band to make it complete. And for this record, I wanted to go a step farther. I’d never co-written with anyone. So I said, ‘We’re a band. I want to co-write. Ideas, riffs, titles, lyrics: Bring me something.”
Tomek brought him some lyrics and some percussion (drum loops) to write around. “And I also sent some rough lyrics,” Tomek said. “He rewrote the lyrics — much improved — and the first version of ‘Who’s at the Wheel’ we recorded used one of the drum loop rhythms. But then we redid it in the final form.” Walkenhorst said, “Pat gave me some raw material to shape. I had it on my computer. I looked at it every couple of days for a few months. It’s mostly his lines.”
On “Save Some for Me,” Porter delivered guitar parts, over which Walkenhorst wrote lyrics. “That was something I’d never done,” Walkenhorst said.
And Walkenhorst gave Rich’s rock anthem, “Dogleg,” a lyrical kickstart.
“Rich is a such an interesting and funny guy with so many great stories,” Walkenhorst said. “This song is like his autobiography.”
Walkenhorst wrote the first verse, which recalls Rich’s true-life near-miss with the Ruskin Heights tornado in 1957, which almost whisked him off this earth.
“Well, I was just a boy back in Ruskin Heights / Tornado ’57 on a Friday night / Scootin’ on a rug on a hardwood floor / If mama hadn’t grabbed me I’d been sucked outta the door.”
“Dogleg” is a primitive hard-rock anthem. “Rich said, ‘I’m gonna write the AC/DC tribute I’ve always wanted to,’ ” Walkenhorst said. It fits in with the rest of the album, much of which is rock with an attitude.
“I didn’t sit down and say, ‘We gotta write a rock record,’ ” Walkenhorst said. “But as you get better as a writer, you get more in tune with what colors and sounds and noises you have to work with and what energy you have to tap into. “This album is more about guitar parts and riffs and lyrics. It’s edgier and more cryptic (than ‘25 On’). People are already reading different things into it, which is what you hope for.”
That hard-rock sound will serve them well this summer. In June, on the morning of Walkenhorst’s 61st birthday, the Rainmakers will fly to Sweden. On June 4, they will perform in Norje at the classic rock stage of the Sweden Rock Festival, a four-day event that will also feature Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper and Queensryche. The tour will continue for 10 more days and six shows in Norway, where, in some venues, the Rainmakers are the equivalent of Jerry Lewis in France.
In Norway, they will deliver plenty of their older material, the songs from the 1980s that propelled the band to national prominence and major-label fame and gave it the whiff of big-time rock stardom. The story didn’t go the way it might have, but Walkenhorst is neither wistful nor wounded by regret. Rather, he is grateful to still be playing songs that matter to people, with people who matter to him.
“We’re heading toward our 30th year,” he said. “Something you don’t predict when you start out in music is that someday your music is going to be part of people’s soundtracks and that your songs will mean even more to them as they get older because those songs have accompanied them throughout their lives.
“People have said to me, ‘You should have been a lot bigger.’ Well, I could spend a lot of time thinking about that or I could spend time thinking that on my 61st birthday, our band is flying to Sweden to play in a rock festival. I’ll focus on that. “I don’t think about what should have been. If our music still means something to people, then we’ve been lucky. And I feel lucky. Our story is a pretty good one.”
The Rainmakers perform Saturday night at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester. The Nace Brothers open. Showtime is 9 p.m. Advance tickets are $15. For more information, go to Knuckleheadskc.com or call 816-483-1456.