Beloved local rockers Rex Holmes release first record … 20 years later

Recording and mixing engineer Mike Gonzales, left, has taken tracks he recorded 20 years ago with beloved local rock band Rex Holmes, which was co-founded in 1999 by Jerry O’Sullivan, right, and turned them into the group’s long-awaited debut, “Live,” which is being released March 10. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

by Mick Rhodes |

History is beset with artists who got their due long past their heyday, or worse yet, posthumously, and pop music might be the form most prone to this sin of omission.

Here in sleepy little Claremont, we have our own entry: long beloved but criminally unheralded local rock band Rex Holmes, who, though together for a relatively short time, 1999 to 2007, left an indelible mark on the lucky few who loved them.

And now a wider audience may finally find the heretofore local heroes: Rex Holmes’ very first record, “Live” — which was recorded nearly 20 years ago — will be released Sunday, March 10. Band members and their fans will celebrate with a free and open to the public 6:30 to 9 p.m. listening party that evening at Claremont Craft Ales, 1420 N. Claremont Blvd #204c, where the new vinyl record and a USB drive containing oodles of bonus material will be available.

Recording and mixing engineer Mike Gonzales, left, has taken tracks he recorded 20 years ago with beloved local rock band Rex Holmes, which was co-founded in 1999 by Jerry O’Sullivan, right, and turned them into the group’s long-awaited debut, “Live,” which is being released March 10. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

In 1999, Rex Holmes co-founder Jerry O’Sullivan was already a veteran musician at 29. Readying for his return to Claremont after living in San Francisco for a few years, he dialed up friends and fellow co-founders Jeff Hayes and Tracy Robar.

“They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll make a band, and we’ll all get girlfriends,’ because we were all single at the time. That was our goal,” O’Sullivan recalled. “And that worked out.”

They were joined by bassist Laura Cormack, Hayes’ bandmate in local punk provocateurs Desperation Squad, and drummer Brian Wells, with whom Robar and O’Sullivan had played in another group.

Rex Holmes’ songwriters O’Sullivan and Hayes were competitive in the best sense; both guitarists and spectacularly expressive lead singers, the band alternated between Hayes’ gorgeous, sardonic anti-ballads and O’Sullivan’s melodic, heart on his sleeve rockers. It was a one-two punch unmatched in this area code. The band’s material was several rungs above their contemporaries, both in its playful lyrical inventiveness, and its refreshingly non-cliché earworm choruses.

And people responded.

“When Rex Holmes played it was above and beyond and extra special, because they were so good and just such a delight,” said longtime fan Emily Moultrie. “When we knew they were playing, we planned our whole lives around it.”

Perhaps best of all, the band played together. They listened to one another. Nobody was too loud, no player too needy. They were a unit of five musicians who shared the spotlight, and not just prime movers O’Sullivan and Hayes: Cormack’s rock solid, tasteful minimalism, with no flashy flourishes; Robar’s incredible guitar tone, his startlingly sophisticated use of effects, and inventive hook lines and solos; and Wells’ authoritative, muscular drumming, with every fill and crash thought through to fit each song, were all integral. So much so that one cannot picture Rex Holmes without each of those five members. It’s not just that it seems wrong: it’s unimaginable.

“I guess just sometimes a certain group of people get together and there’s something there,” O’Sullivan said. “I think other people telling us that sometimes helped, because I don’t think we realized it.”

Throughout the entirety of its eight-year run Rex Holmes drew large, adoring crowds to local venues like The Press. But there was a crack in the foundation. The competition between O’Sullivan and Hayes didn’t just manifest in increasingly jaw-dropping songs. Their between song banter would sometimes take a turn.

“A lot of times it was dark,” O’Sullivan said. “I mean, the worst of it was just like actual fistfights. That happened a couple of times, where I felt like [Hayes] was forcing me to fight him, and I did.”

Though some fans are reluctant to admit it, the obvious animosity — when it didn’t result in physical violence — was undeniably entertaining. But it was unsustainable. And at a certain point, it became too much.

By 2007 the decision was made to dissolve the partnership.

The band had made at least three attempts at recording an album at various Southern California studios during their time together, including sessions helmed by the late John Harrelson and others with Wyman Reese and Walter Clevenger. But the result was the same: something always derailed the release.

The record that will be released March 10 — which is accompanied by a slew of bonus material on a thumb drive — would likely never have happened but for the surreptitious efforts of another longtime fan, Claremont resident Mike Gonzales, who owned a small recording studio during the band’s heyday.

“I was one of the first guys around town that got them in the studio,” Gonzales said of the 2004 sessions from which “Live” was culled.

The numerous recordings the band made over the years, “never ever got to anything,” Gonzales lamented. “No EP, no CD, no cassette tape. Nothing. Zero to show for Rex Holmes.”

Nearly 20 years later and unbeknownst to the band, Gonzales began work on what he termed a “concept record.” The idea was to overlay crowd noise with the studio tracks, creating a quasi-live record, a la Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.” It’s an interesting idea, one especially well-suited to Rex Holmes due to the scintillating between song banter of O’Sullivan and Hayes.

The cover of Rex Holmes’ debut record, “Live,” out March 10 on Baldy View Records. Pictured (L-R) are Jerry O’Sullivan, Jeff Hayes, Laura Cormack, Brian Wells, and Tracy Robar. Photo/Christine Wells

Predictably, some band members disagreed on the final mixes. But perhaps the only way the record would have ever seen the light of day is by being commandeered by an outsider who forced it into the public sphere.

“I wanted a tangible living archive of the band,” Gonzales said. “There was some passion to these songs that was undeniable when they were first starting out. The ideas were fresh. The songs were fresh. They may have slightly different arrangements now, but they were done with such conviction back then. I just want to get it into the hands of fans at the end of the day. If I make my money back that’d be great. If I make some money for the band, even better. But at the end of the day I’m just a fan.”

One among many.

“For us who have been with them for these 25 years or so and have gotten to know them personally, and then also have gotten to know them as a working group, it’s about f***ing time is what it is,” Moultrie said of the long awaited Rex Holmes debut record.

O’Sullivan, who since Rex Holmes broke up has gone on to co-found Claremont Voodoo Society, Stolen 58s, and is currently playing with The Bells, is among those pleased with the long awaited, unlikely new release.

“I’m really, really excited about it and just incredibly grateful to Mike [Gonzales] for doing this,” O’Sullivan said.

It’s a love letter of sorts, Gonzales said, one Rex Holmes fans have been waiting more than two decades to receive.

“These guys are so great, and at the end of every show everyone just sort of throws up their hands are just like, ‘Why doesn’t everyone know about this band? Why doesn’t everyone listen to this band on every radio station?’” Moultrie said. “Because they’re so accessible, and so just tight and beautiful and innovative and yet homey and nostalgic at the same time.”

The free and open to the public listening party for Rex Holmes “Live,” takes place from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday, March 10 at Claremont Craft Ales, 1420 N. Claremont Blvd #204c. To be clear, the band will not be performing at this event. The new record, on Baldy View Records, will be available for sale. A deluxe package, $100, includes a 185-gram vinyl pressing (with the first 50 signed by the band), a T-shirt, sticker, and USB drive containing an abundance of bonus material, including demos, rare live recordings, alternate takes, artwork, photos, and a digital version of the album. For pre-orders or more information, email

Rex Holmes will perform at a May 4 album release party at the Hi Brow Pub in Upland. More info is at


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