Getting Back Together
Alaska regulars Elvis Monroe reunite band for Nov. 15 show at Koot’s
By Andrew Jensen
For the Daily News
Around 3 a.m. on a late night in 2008, Ben Carey was sitting alone in the legendary Mel’s Drive-in on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood and stewing over a bad day while waiting for a fellow Aussie he’d just met to show up.
That’s when Bryan Hopkins walked in with Toryn Green, the former lead singer of Fuel.
Carey was not impressed.
“It looked like Halloween and it definitely wasn't Halloween as far as I knew,” Carey said. “And they’re fully L.A. rock starred out, you know, they have the makeup and the hair and the colors and the jackets and the pants and the tassels and I was like, ‘Oh my god, it's rock pirates.’”
Then Carey saw his countryman Toby Rand, who’d recently taken third place on the CBS show “Rock Star: Supernova” hosted by Dave Navarro and Brooke Burke.
“’No way,’” Carey thought. “’Please don't let them be in the same group of people.’ And it becomes pretty evident that this procession was headed to my table. I was fully in judge-a-book-by-its-cover mode and all the stupid things were going through my mind making fun of these guys like, ‘what clowns.’”
Hopkins pulled up the chair directly across from Carey and stuck his hand out.
“Hi, man, I’m Bryan.”
Carey’s inner commentary was still going.
“Of course you are,” Carey said to himself. “It’s a very American name. I’m in L.A. and you look like this. What the hell?”
Then they started talking and Carey realized he’d gotten Hopkins all wrong.
“It becomes pretty evident and very quickly that this guy sitting across from me was super cool,” Carey said. “He’s was really nice and I was such a douche.”
Little did either of them know this meeting was the start of a beautiful friendship that would lead to the formation of Elvis Monroe and a special relationship with Alaska that began in 2011 when the duo-led ensemble group played a series of shows for high school students in Southcentral as part of the anti-drug and alcohol program “You Choose.”
Favorites as a duo in Alaska since then at the annual Backyard Country BBQ and Northern Lights Country Series — they wrote their radio hit “Backyard Family Barbeque” in an Anchorage hotel room — Elvis Monroe is bringing a full band back to Anchorage for the first time in eight years at Koot’s on Nov. 15.
The show will be a reunion for Carey and Hopkins with the two members of Elvis Monroe who traveled to Alaska in 2011: Ryan MacMillian, the drummer for Matchbox 20, and Daniel Spriewald, a talented bass player who is with Phil X and the Drills. (Phil X took over lead guitar for Bon Jovi from Richie Sambora in 2011).
Also joining them is violinist Rahmann Phillip, who first played with them two years ago and has since gone on to join Lady Gaga’s residency show in Las Vegas, where Elvis Monroe is based.
But back in 2008, just as Carey was warming up to Hopkins it was the Paperback Hero lead singer who was starting to judge his new acquaintance.
‘I don’t really play around here’
Hopkins was talking about a song his band was struggling with when Carey told him he played guitar and offered to help.
Hopkins was immediately skeptical.
Little did he know Carey was the lead guitarist for the multi-platinum selling band Lifehouse that has sold more than 15 million albums since their 2001 debut single “Hanging by a Moment.” Prior to that he played with the Australian group Savage Garden, whose two albums sold some 23 million copies worldwide.
Hopkins asked Carey where he played around town, but Carey held back.
“I said, ‘I don’t really play around town,’” Carey said. “I didn’t want to be the douche and the clown that says, ‘Yeah, I play the Staples Center, bro.’”
Hopkins got more suspicious the more evasive Carey was. Paperback Hero had a residency at L.A.’s famous Panther Club playing the first Monday of every month and Hopkins started to think Carey was trying to “ride my coattails.”
Hopkins tried to change the subject and then Carey asked him who his favorite bands were.
The first one Hopkins said was Lifehouse.
“Stop,” Carey said. “I’m in that band.”
“What?!” Hopkins exclaimed. “You’re kidding.”
“No,” Carey said. “I’m not. I really don’t play around here. The last time I played here was the Staples Center and the Greek Theater.”
Soon after, Carey played a show with Paperback Hero and in the audience was an up-and-coming producer named Jay Ruston, who would go on to produce the albums for Steel Panther among a slew of artists as varied as Diana Ross, Meat Loaf and Better than Ezra.
After that show and working with Ruston in the studio, Carey was walking his dog — or what he calls his “office” — and called Hopkins to tell him he wanted to form a band with him.
A few minutes later Carey got a call from Matt Nelson, the son of Ricky Nelson who along with his twin brother Gunnar formed the rock group Nelson in late 1980s.
Matt wanted to do a side project with Carey, but Carey told him it was too late.
He still wanted to be involved, but Carey had a playful question first.
“You know in high school when you start a band, it's like, well, this guy's got a PA and that guy's got a bass guitar that guy’s dad's got a van,” Carey said. “So he's not really good at anything. But he could be in the band. Maybe you could be the new roadie. So I said, ‘Matt, if you want to be in the band, what do you bring?’”
Nelson was ready with a combination of the biggest icons of American culture that used to hang out with his famous father.
“I’ve got the coolest name,” Nelson said. “Elvis Monroe.”
As a Las Vegas-based band, Elvis Monroe played the Route 91 Harvest Festival since it started in 2014, the same year Carey officially departed Lifehouse after 10 years.
After performing in 2017 they decided to watch country star and headliner Jason Aldean’s Oct. 1 show from the crowd rather than from their backstage vantage points.
Just 20 minutes or so into the set is when the bullets started flying, people started falling around them and everyone in the crowd of more than 20,000 fans began to run.
Hopkins and Carey quickly became separated. Carey was briefly trampled to the ground in the rush before getting to his feet and racing in a zig-zag pattern toward the fences.
In front of Hopkins was Nicole Ruffino, who stood nearly frozen until he grabbed her by the hand. The two had met briefly the day before for a standard selfie moment and found themselves just feet apart to see Aldean.
Knowing the backstage setup, Hopkins led Ruffino and her friends that direction through the carnage and into a refrigerated catering truck as they listened to bullets ricocheting in every direction.
When it was all over, 58 people were dead, more than 700 were wounded and everyone was changed forever.
Elvis Monroe immediately hit the road playing benefit concerts in Nevada, California and on Oct. 16, 2017, in Anchorage to benefit the families of Alaska victims Adrian Murfitt and Dorene Anderson.
The Anchorage benefit at Williwaw was the most difficult for Carey, he said, as he stood outside the venue looking in and saw the picture of Murfitt scroll over the screen.
Carey realized he’d met Murfitt that night and even grabbed his black cowboy hat to try on. Murfitt was just a few feet behind Hopkins and Carey when he was killed.
“I felt the finality of the realization of, I was just talking to that kid. I was just giving him a hug. I was messing around putting on his hat and he was standing right behind us literally,” Carey said. “It just all hit me at once.”
Months later after countless interviews and benefits, Carey took charge of his healing.
“I had one specific charity show where I'm sitting in the room watching a bunch of broken people tell the story and it was about a year after the event and I sat there after the event and I said to Bryan, ‘I can't do this anymore. I can't live in the past. I want to look forward not backwards,’” he recalled. “For me personally, (looking back) was just disrespectful for the fact that we were given life. So that was the day for me where I said, ‘Come on. I'm moving forward.’”
For Hopkins and Ruffino, they were able to heal together with a relationship born out of tragedy yet a shared bond of grieving as they wrote poetry for each other in the weeks after.
Still together more than two years later, both have dealt with the anxiety and triggers from that night while moving on. Their story was featured in media and shows like “Pickler and Ben” as Hopkins talked his way through the healing process.
The Route 91 massacre will always be a part of Elvis Monroe’s story, not for the least of reasons that it inspired Hopkins to finish a song he and Carey had shelved titled “The Fight.”
Regulars at the Red Rock in Las Vegas, Carey and Hopkins became friends with owner and philanthropist Bryan Lindsey, who is a former chairman of the American Heart Association.
As active members of the community themselves, Hopkins was touched after meeting some young children facing life-threatening heart conditions. His own brother, Cody, has been battling a terminal heart diagnosis and the pair appeared together on stage Nov. 2 to perform the song they recorded together titled “Family Forever.”
Hopkins even shaved his trademark mohawk in solidarity with Cody, who has sported a shaved head for years.
Hopkins and Carey had set out to write a song for the AHA titled “The Fight,” but despite their good intentions, the song never came together the way their other writing efforts have. They “parked it,” said Carey, who joked that usually “11 out of 10 songs we write never end up being hard work.”
Then Route 91 happened. After a few whirlwind days and sleepless nights in the aftermath, Hopkins came to Carey and said he was ready to rewrite it.
“I think it's fair to say from a songwriting point of view, the song really was inspired and it wrote itself because of the event,” Carey said. “We smashed it out and it came together in literally like three, four minutes.”
They then checked with Lindsey about using the song as a tribute to the victims and the survivors. As an organizer of the Las Vegas Strong benefit concert, Lindsey didn’t hesitate.
“Of course I’m OK with this,” Hopkins recalled Lindsey telling them. “The city needs this. We need this.”
Just a few days later they were debuting the song in Anchorage.
A fixture of Elvis Monroe shows since then, Hopkins and Carey emphasized the message of “The Fight” is bigger than that night in Vegas.
“The reason we wrote the song was that anybody that needs some help, anybody that needs some hope, to know that we're in it together, we're going to link arms,” Carey said. “It doesn't have to be about that tragedy. Everybody struggles with something. ‘The Fight’ is about that struggle. It's not about October One. It's about being human and helping the person next to you, standing up and fighting for them because they can't.”
Although they grew up across the Pacific Ocean from each other, Carey and Hopkins led parallel lives.
Both were star athletes in high school and neither have drank or used drugs.
Hopkins was a baseball player who’d drawn the attention of scouts from the L.A. Angels and the Cincinnati Reds. Carey started playing professional basketball while still in high school and was a member of the South East Melbourne Magic that won a National Basketball League title in 1996.
Carey, who played point guard, was on a track to make the national men’s team that would play host to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney but his dad had often told him he was going to eventually have to choose between music and sports.
Carey usually brushed off that advice, and then he got an offer to play with Savage Garden.
He would still go on to make the Olympics, but as one of the acts playing the closing ceremonies in Sydney while several of his former Magic teammates who made the national team looked on.
For Hopkins, a hyperextended elbow ended his playing career after his freshman year of college and he flew to Ketchikan where he spent six moths painting ships at the drydock, working in a warehouse on the weekends and selling gym memberships.
Eventually he jumped in his car and drove from Oregon to Hollywood where he stopped in a Gold’s Gym parking lot, slept the night, woke up and bought a yearlong membership.
He took a job waiting tables from midnight to 7 a.m. so he didn’t have to sleep in his car and found odd jobs acting on soap operas and one memorable episode of “Saved by the Bell.”
The episode, “Video Yearbook,” features Zach Morris in one of his typical schemes to sell dating videos instead of producing the yearbook. Hopkins played Vince Montana, a leather-clad bad boy enlisted by Zach’s girlfriend Kelly Kapowski to make him jealous.
He finally got to leave his side gigs behind as Paperback Hero gained a loyal following along the West Coast before that fateful meeting with Carey at Mel’s.
“We are very much the same,” Hopkins said. “It's weird. We think the same and he's truly my best friend. He literally gave up playing in Lifehouse to do this with me. He says ‘no’ to guys like Brett Young and Joe Nichols and all these great friends of ours who constantly want him to go out on tour and play guitar for them.
“If he does that, then we don't do what we're doing because this is a 50-50 deal. And he doesn't do those things so that we can do all this together. That's kind of great.”