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Photos: For 100 Monkeys, art has no age, number, beginning or end

100 Monkeys

Cassi Thomas/Retna

100 Monkeys at the Cosmopolitan on April 30, 2011.

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100 Monkeys

100 Monkeys at the Cosmopolitan on April 30, 2011. Launch slideshow »

100 Monkey's Ugly Girl

The Daze

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100 Monkeys perform at Book & Stage at the Cosmopolitan on April 30, 2011.

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100 Monkeys perform at Book & Stage at the Cosmopolitan on April 30, 2011.

It isn’t the unusual name of 100 Monkeys that makes the funk rock band so unique. It isn’t just that Twilight star Jackson Rathbone is in the band. It isn’t just the fact that all five musicians can switch over to one another’s roles and alternate instruments during performances. It’s the fact that four of the all-American boys are in their 20s, and the fifth member is a black man in his late 50s.

“The age gap is unique, but art has no age, no number, no beginning and no end,” 57-year-old Chicago-born Lawrence Abrams told me. “When I first met them, I saw and felt a lot of myself coming up in them right before my eyes. I may be 25 years their senior, but they have rhythm and soul. They say I bring a lot of wisdom, kindness and patience to their table.”

I chatted with the guys on the Strip before a recent performance of their “tribal, sometimes bluesy sounds” at the Cosmopolitan. They gave me a preview of their new Warrior/Universal Music album Liquid Zoo, which will be released June 28 as they kick off their second summer tour of 40-plus cities. It features 11 songs, including their most requested “Shy Water” and “Black Diamond.”

The first single, “Wandering Minds,” has started getting airplay across the country. Rolling Stone named them one of the five breakout bands to watch, and named them one of the 25 must-see bands last year on their 100-city tour. Their single “Ugly Girl” was featured on YouTube.

The band is made up of Jerad Anderson, 29, from San Diego; Jackson Rathbone, 26, who was born in Singapore, although his family is from Louisiana; Ben Graupner, 25, from Madison, Wis.; Ben Johnson, 26, from Mt. Carroll, Ill.; and Lawrence, aka Uncle Larry, who is the percussionist playing flute, bass and saxophone. Jackson, related distantly to the late great British actor Basil Rathbone, plays guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, mandolin, trumpet and harmonica and is on vocals. Jerad, who alternates with keyboard, drums and bass, also has acting chops, with credits including Greek.

Let’s tackle the unusual name. 100 Monkeys are known to switch instruments and vocalists nearly every other song during their raucous live sets. It’s known as The Monkey Switcheroo. The 100th Monkey effect is given to the instant paranormal spreading of an idea or ability to the remainder of a population once a certain portion has heard of the new idea or learned the new ability.

When I asked if the theory was true, Jackson asked me: “Is anything that is a theory true?” And that promptly ended all conversation of where the name originated! But the guys did admit that fans love that they interchange. “The dedicated fans are like magic to us. They give us a lot of energy when they see five different members being the frontman in the same one show. I don’t think there’s any other band that has five different people play the drums or switch instruments. We all do everything.

“Everything in life is a form of art, it’s about embracing that, and if you pursue it with love and passion, then it will happen. We can be musicians when we are unemployed actors. We can be actors when we are unemployed musicians.”

Three of the band members went to high school together in Michigan and wound up seeking fame and fortune in L.A. They lived a block apart from one another, and then Jackson and Jay teamed up for a movie titled The Daze, which Uncle Larry was acting in and producing. And that was the beginning of the band.

The group got its start four years ago in a lowly, offbeat Hollywood bar and now has fans worldwide. The 24K Lounge owner let them jam there one night a week. The music attracted passers-by, and before they had chance to lock its front door, people wandered in and began dancing and drinking.

“We started jamming and having fun, making things up as we went along. We like to embrace our fans and play with them, not to them,” Jackson said. The group regularly asks audiences to yell out possible “song titles” so they can jam until they have a complete tune with verses and lyrics -- another original idea. They also never repeat their set list.

Uncle Larry, who began with Bobby Day and The Hollywood Flames on their hit “Rockin’ Robin,” said: “That very first minute we all started jamming at 24K, I knew all this success was going to happen. The talent was just waiting to catch up with itself. They kind of have come into their own, and now they actually influence me because they can show me what’s currently happening in the walk of music.”

I asked Jackson, whose credits also include The Last Airbender, The O.C. and No Ordinary Family, if he was pleased with the band’s journey to date. “I love where we are musically. I wish we could be traveling more and working more. It’s hard when you’re an independent band and you’re trying to stay that way. We’re producing our own records, and we’re producing other bands’ records. We run our band very much like a democracy.

“We’re trying to go from A to A, Artist to Audience direct, as opposed to all the middlemen. It’s sad there aren’t many record stores left, but we’ve played at the few amazing ones still around. The modern record store is for great artists to come together.

“Going on YouTube is one way to break a band today, but if it breaks out overnight, fame may only last 15 minutes. It’s a platform to get noticed, and if you have sticking power, then you can cross over past that. It helped Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga to push them into the big stream. But then there’s also lots of hard-working bands who might go for years and years without top-star recognition.”

As actors, instrumentalists, artists and producers of movies and music, 100 Monkeys has racked up a string of successes separately and together. I quizzed Twilight’s Jasper Hale about the role that will eventually take priority. “I had a dream about this. I had the option of dropping everything I grew up on and chasing after something I thought I could hold on to. I think it’s one of those things that take precedence in our lives, and that’s our family. What we strive to do is make the world better for the next generation.

“I think that’s one of the goals of the arts. To go forward with that, still preserving that ideal of family, our family of music. And that sense of at the end of the day, you hang onto the people you love, not the machinations that you go about to fulfill your artistic or business desires. It’s about holding on to the people you love more than anything else.

“So it will always be about the band first!”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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