Saluting a Legend: Toledo’s Tropic Bombs remember a fallen friend

 

Vocalist/Drummer Ryan Wayton in Tropic Bombs’ home studio. Image courtesy of Tanner Wertz.

Toledo has a rich history of local, regional, and national acts playing venues all across town like Frankie’s Inner-City, The Ottawa Tavern, Headliners, The Omni, etc. This history would not be complete without the Rock/Reggae/Funk powerhouse Tropic Bombs, who was awarded Toledo City Paper’s “Best New Act” in 2011. With their high-energy live shows, credible albums Nuclear Honeymoon (2012) and Return to Bomber Bay (2014), and a handful of singles and music videos, they’re one of Toledo’s finest local acts.

With a few lineup changes and hectic work/life schedules, the past couple of years have made it difficult for Tropic Bombs to release music and play shows as much as they would like to. Over the course of 2019, they went from a 5-piece to a 4-piece, bringing in a new bass player, and have dedicated their time writing and recording music versus playing shows for the foreseeable future (even before the pandemic). This included a trip to North Carolina to get away and spend a week working on new material.

I was invited to Sand & Stones Studios, the practice spot and recording studio for Tropic Bombs, to speak with vocalist/drummer Ryan Wayton to get the update on what the band has been up to.

It seemed like you guys made a fresh start after your last couple of shows. What made you guys reunite?

Wayton: Over the last several years, scheduling has become an issue. As we get older, we have more responsibilities than we did when we were teenagers. Even with all of that, we didn’t want to stop creating and sharing music with people. If something comes up (member moves away, for example), we’re the kind of band that would restructure the group in order to continue. All members (past and present) have and continue to play a crucial role in Tropic Bombs. It seems like since around 2015, it’s been one person or another having to leave the band whether they wanted to or not. We weren’t getting to do what we wanted to do and people had different ideas on what they wanted to do. We got together to talk about what was best for the band and how to move forward with it. 

We decided it was best (at the time) to go back to being a three-piece and just do studio stuff. Jon (Hammond, guitarist), Crum (Justin Crumley, guitarist), and I have been playing together since around 2001 and we love playing music together and have always stuck together when our past bands have come and gone. As much as we love playing shows, we love creating and writing and the three of us were the ones who were the most able to get together. We talked with Steve (Dwyer, drummer) and Zack (Jacobs, bassist) about this plan and it was Steve who suggested that I take over the drummer role on top of being the vocalist. I love those dudes and with their busy schedules, they were totally understanding of how Jon, Crum, and I wanted to move the band forward. Once that was established, Crum and I took a trip to North Carolina to get away and work on new songs. 

Our newest song “Reignite” was written about this period of time where the band was brought back to life with newfound purpose after going through a slow patch. After a while, we went from three to four members when we brought our friend Alan Hoffar to play bass. We were totally set on being a three-piece, but jamming with Alan worked so well that making him a member of Tropic Bombs seemed to be the best route to take. At the end of the day, we love Tropic Bombs and we wanted to continue making music with each other and we hope people can still dig it.

What can we expect to hear from Tropic Bombs moving forward?

Wayton: Our main goal is to continue putting out more music, especially in an album format where we can have physical copies along with the streamed versions. We love giving people something visual and something they can hold onto while having the auditory experience. We’re planning on doing a full album with the new lineup and to (hopefully) do shows again once the world allows it. Releasing music is one thing, but getting on stage and having loved ones and fans show up to have a good time is priceless.  

I’m sorry to hear about your friend Mckenzie and his passing. Can you tell me about his influence on you, music, and life?

Wayton: Crum introduced me to this band called He Is Legend in 2004 after he saw them at a show the night before. He puts in one of their CDs and their song “The Seduction” comes on and I was just blown away. At the time, they were the first band I had heard who combined so many different styles of music in a unique and awesome package that had me hooked. From that point on, they became my favorite and loved all of their releases since and watched them evolve as a band. Tropic Bombs was fortunate enough to open for them on two occasions about ten years later when they came to Toledo. Broc Curry from Innovation Concerts helped make that a reality because he knew how much I loved He Is Legend and wanted to bring them to Toledo while they were on tour at the time. I had only seen them once being that they’re from North Carolina; it would’ve been enough just to see them but opening for them was surreal. 

When we opened for them, Mckenzie (Bell, guitarist) had been out of the band for a while. With their music, my favorite songs were written when Mckenzie was in the band. To this day, some of my favorite guitar riffs were written by Mckenzie. I had no idea what he’d been up since leaving the band, so I gathered the courage to message him after I found him on Facebook to tell him how much of an impact he and his songs with He Is Legend made on me. In the message, I even asked if and what he had been up to musically in hopes of hearing it. It was a shot in the dark and I just figured he would never see a message from a random fanboy from Toledo, Ohio. Months went by and I woke up to a Facebook notification that said “Message from Mckenzie Bell” and I couldn’t believe it. He apologized for not seeing the message after a while, said he was beyond grateful for my kind words, and then listed off his musical projects since leaving He Is Legend. I thought that would’ve been the end of the conversation, but he saw that I was in a band and that Tropic Bombs opened for He Is Legend in Toledo. From there we kept talking, exchanged numbers, and became friends over the past five years.

About three years into our friendship is when he had his snowboarding accident. We talked a lot, but we talked even more after that because I wanted to give him encouragement while he was trying to get better. He would tell me how he couldn’t function how he’d used to, especially in his arms and wrists while also having trouble sleeping. Several times, I would travel to North Carolina to hang out with him or he’d meet up with my family if we were down there. It was surreal not only being with him in person, but to have him hang with my friends and family as well. It felt like being around a celebrity, but he never saw himself like that and would never make you think that of him. Eventually I saw him more as a close friend rather than a celebrity-type. He was one of the most humble, down-to-Earth dudes ever. He’s the kind of guy who would show up to fancy restaurants with tattoos exposed and camouflage shorts; that’s just the kind of guy he was. 

Eventually, I was able to take Crum to North Carolina with me to meet and hang with Mckenzie. At one point on that trip, we were all able to get in a room and jam with Crum and Mckenzie on guitar and myself on drums. We jammed on old He Is Legend songs and more and that experience was really inspiring for Crum and I. It inspired us to continue writing and to keep doing what we love with each other. Him and I would show Mckenzie ideas for Tropic Bombs songs and he would give the most honest feedback because he wanted us to make the best songs we could. He even let us stay at his place when we went down to North Carolina to film the “Reignite” music video in November 2019. 

We were planning on doing the song and video with Mckenzie, but he wasn’t confident in his playing due to the nerve damage and breathing issues that resulted from his snowboarding accident. However, he felt that the song didn’t need his contribution but was down to do another one in the future. He would even send me guitar part ideas to see what I could do with them. But because of the accident, he would occasionally have episodes where he had trouble breathing. This past April, it all got the best of him and he was only 35 when he passed. It’s crazy because I hadn’t talked to him in two days and I was about to FaceTime him to show him the progress of the studio. But a friend of mine messaged me and saw he passed via an article online, and I was just devastated. It’s just crazy seeing one of your musical heroes become a close friend and then pass away.

Through that experience, I knew how close Mckenzie was with his mom but I didn’t know his mom personally until after he passed. His mom and I connected and would lean on each other along with my wife to get through this. There was such an instant connection between us and she kind of became like a second mom to me; describing my wife and I as being like her kids. His family couldn’t have a funeral with the pandemic, so my wife and I went down to North Carolina to visit his mom to be there for her and to pay respects. While down there, his mom gave me his main guitar because she knew how close I was with Mckenzie and vice versa. Mckenzie not only influenced me as a musician but also as the amazing person he was. His music in and out of He Is Legend had a major impact on Tropic Bombs and we’ll continue to carry on his legacy and memory.

What’s it like having your own recording studio? Will it be just for your use or do you plan on recording other musicians?

I’ve had my own recording studio for 15 years, but having one I designed and built in my home is a dream. It’s also a nice place to keep Tropic Bombs memorabilia and to create new things moving forward. While it’s not my main career, it’s nice to have to continue this passion of mine in my own space. We’re just using the studio for Tropic Bombs for now, but I’m sure I’ll record other bands and musicians here at some point. I’ll probably take on projects every once in a while that I’m interested in. There’s definitely other bands and musicians I’d like to work with because I love their music. An example is Emma Lee, who recorded her song “Bedford” at my old studio. There’s a possibility of bringing her into Sand & Stone Studios to record more songs in the future. 

What’s the accomplishment you’re the most proud of with Tropic Bombs?

Wayton: The thing I’m the most proud of is over the last 10+ years, we’ve created this little family of people that wouldn’t have been connected otherwise. The amount and quality of people we’ve met through Tropic Bombs shows or people who found our music means a ton to me. A community was accidentally created from all of this and I’m so proud of it. The music is important, but the community is even more important. A lot of bands we’ve played with have come and gone, so that fact that we’re still around is another thing I’m proud of. We love being in Tropic Bombs and each other as people. One day, we won’t be able to get together and play music as Tropic Bombs. We’re doing it while we can and while we want to be a part of this. It becomes harder to find time to do it, but we find and make the time because we love it so much. 

For more information on Tropic Bombs, visit https://www.facebook.com/TropicBombs/. You can hear their music on all streaming platforms.