The Expendables were about to hit the road last fall when bass player Ryan DeMars received jarring news from his doctor.
“I had this crazy arm pain for, like, two or three years,” said DeMars, who plays bass for the Santa Cruz reggae band, which performs at Avila Beach Resort on Friday. “And I kept going to the doctor, and they said ‘You need to stretch more. You need to stop working out. Stop surfing as much.’ Eventually, I discovered a lump in my armpit.”
When doctors found he had cancer cells in his arm, they told him he had to begin chemotherapy. At the same time, his band was scheduled to hit the road in two weeks.
“We couldn’t back off the tour because it would have financially destroyed us,” he said.
With cancer infiltrating his body and the prospect of grueling chemotherapy looming, DeMars offered his temporary replacement a crash course on their tunes. And two days after his band’s bus pulled out of Santa Cruz, his chemo began.
“Then we just kind of tackled it right before it made its way to the bone marrow, which would have been a different game,” DeMars said.
While the band had a friend fill in, DeMars has been a crucial member of The Expendables — which formed as a group of high school friends in 1997 — writing songs and coming up with grooving bass lines. For the first several years, the band mostly played backyard parties, offering its brand of reggae and ska — with occasional hard rock and metal nods — to college kids in Santa Cruz, San Diego, Isla Vista and San Luis Obispo.
“We had a bunch of friends that went to school down in SLO,” he said, noting that the band played in San Luis Obispo twice a month back then. “It was only 21⁄2 hours from Santa Cruz. … SLO’s kind of our second home in a way.”
Popular among surfers and skaters, the band eventually played larger venues, touring with acts like Pepper, Slightly Stoopid and G Love & Special Sauce.
While The Expendables were touring with Iration last fall, DeMars couldn’t even think about playing music.
“You just get so dizzy,” he said. “If you focus on the TV, you get sick. There was no way I could sit down and look at my guitar.”
Still, he was determined not to miss much more than that fall tour. In December, five days after his last chemo treatment, he was plucking his bass and performing New Year’s shows.
“I was feeling like absolute crap, but I ended up doing those shows anyway,” he said.
He hasn’t written songs about his illness yet — it all happened so fast, he’s still taking it in. But his worldview has clearly changed.
“I like to call it a ‘life audit,’ ” he said. “You get this extreme experience in your life, and you have a chance to reflect on yourself.”
After his treatments, he got engaged to his girlfriend. He’s cooled off on the heavy partying. And now he’s legit: Because of his illness, he was able to get a card for medical marijuana — which is a little funny for a band whose song catalogue includes such titles as “Come Get High,” “Ganja Smugglin” and the reefer love song “Bowl for Two.”
Suddenly, DeMars, who had smoked pot since high school, could get it legally.
“It was more convenient,” DeMars said. “I could go on my own terms and just stop in the store and go pick up some weed. Before you’d have to figure out who’s around or whatever — however else you get illegal drugs.”
The ganja did help offset the notorious nausea caused by the chemo. But eventually, he said, he had to force himself to take a break.
“I had to make sure I could get through a day without smoking,” he said.
Now close to a year after his cancer scare, DeMars and the band are wrapping up a 35-city tour with reggae band The Dirty Heads. He still writes songs — weed fueling his creative process — and eventually, he said, he may just get around to writing about his cancer scare.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I write a lot of songs that get thrown away before they ever get to the band.”
IF YOU GO
The Dirty Heads with The Expendables
6 p.m. Friday
Avila Beach Resort, 6464 Ana Bay Drive, Avila Beach
595-4000 or www.otterproductionsinc.com
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.