Meet the F-16 pilots who turned their wartime experiences into hilarious songs
Some vets with a tendency toward showmanship like to take their talents to YouTube or Hollywood when they hit the post-service world.
But the former F-16 fighter pilots behind Operation Encore took the old-school approach and are working to shatter some of the caricatures of veterans through music. The result is a blend of music genres from a variety of military-affiliated artists that range from folksy bluegrass to present-day pop rock — all of it relating to experiences of war that poke fun at life in the service and lament the tragedy of war.
Chris Kurek is the co-founder and partner with Viper Driver Productions. He's better known as "Snooze," one of the two founding members of the band Dos Gringos, a pair of F-16 pilots who released four satirical albums full of songs with titles like "I Wish I Had a Gun Just Like the A-10" to the NSFW drinking song "Jeremiah Weed" to the Willie Nelson-esque "TDY Again."
The band kicked off when Kurek and his fellow jet jock Robert "Trip" Raymond were deployed to Kuwait for Operation Southern Watch and later Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We were out there for six months, there was nothing else to do," Kurek said. He and Raymond wrote some songs and performed for the rest of their squadron.
Their songs drew what Kurek described as "wonky eyes" from some, but their squadron commander was very supportive, encouraging them to record the songs on CD, even offering to put up the money.
"We were kind of writing on stuff that pointed out things that drive you crazy in the military," he said.
After the band's return stateside, they went to Texas to record their first CD, "Live at the Sand Trap."
Turns out Dos Gringos' wing commander was less than pleased with their extracurricular enterprise and barred them from performing at the Cannon Air Force Base Officer's Club.
But the band went viral in a 2003 sorta way via the enlisted maintenance personnel who particularly dug the song, "I'm a Pilot," Kurek said. The semi-satirical ditty about a self-centered fighter jock — which evokes a sound similar to some songs from the 80s band Warrant — was passed around the flightline.
Eventually, Dos Gringos would put out three more albums —"2," "Live at Tommy Rockers," and "El Cuatro" — before the band had to go on hiatus due to pressure from higher ups as Raymond rose through the ranks.
They were not done with music, though. Both felt some frustration with how some caricatured vets and with what they perceived as an effort by Nashville to cash in on the veteran experience.
Kurek recounted that the war wasn't always patriotism or sadness, pointing out there was a lot of "goofing off and laughter" because of "boredom."
"Vets can write about anything," Kurek said. Eventually, in a conversation with Erik Brine, a C-17 pilot who was a later addition to Dos Gringos, Kurek recounted someone asking, "I wonder if there are any other people who did what we did on deployment – bring a guitar and write songs."
They began a search, and it was a pair of submissions from Stephen Covell, an Army medic who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, that prompted them to create Operation Encore.
"Those two alone were the best I ever heard," Kurek said. "They conveyed a combat vet's experience."
Covell's submissions pushed Kurek and Raymond to launch a Kickstarter campaign to pay for airfare, studio time, mixing and mastering.
While two albums, "Volume 1" and "Monuments," have so far been released, Kurek notes the process has been a challenge, largely due to the way the music industry has changed. Kurek recounted that when the first Dos Gringos album came out, CDs were still king. The rise of iTunes and digital downloads were one shift which evened out – the volume increased, even as they got less per song.
With Operation Encore, though, the big challenge has been the fact that the music industry has shifted once again to streaming services, and it takes hundreds of thousands of streams to get real money. Furthermore, Kurek pointed out that Dos Gringos was a niche market, and their audience knew what they would get.
Operation Encore is different.
"Operation Encore is a compilation, not one band, sound, or genre," he explained, pointing out some of the songs were pop rock, others country or bluegrass. Furthermore, the singers who appear are scattered all over the world. Just getting the performers together for a concert would entail airfare, hotel rooms, and equipment rental. Not to mention all the stuff that is in the riders for the artists.
Kurek, though, is still hot on his Iraq War-era band.
"I wish we could do one more Dos Gringos album," he said.
Operation Encore's CDs can be purchased at CDBaby.com, or bought as digital downloads from iTunes, Amazon.com, and Google Play. Dos Gringos CDs are also available at CDBaby.com, and can be purchased from iTunes, Amazon.com, and Google Play.