"That's the buzz," says Justin Maloney, guitarist for Fort Wayne's leading ska outfit known as Heavy Step. Who knew that ska - a slightly stiffer version of reggae with an emphasis on brass and horn arrangements - was even sick?
Music aficionados who've enjoyed the opportunity to witness Heavy Step in concert would have to question the musical style's mortality more than they would that of Paul"The Walrus" McCartney. The seven-man band lends plenty of vitality to the genre and to the local music scene at large. Still, Maloney is ever the skeptic.
During a recent interview session at the movie-and-sports-oriented Luxury Box located inside Fort Wayne's spacious Robinson House (this music journalist's two-bedroom apartment), Maloney and Heavy Step trumpet blower Todd Roth tell it like it is.
"It's not on the top of the charts," Maloney says."As far as the music industry is concerned, ska is dead, boy bands are in."
So have the boys in the band ever considered becoming a boy band?
"Just the cute ones," Maloney replies.
Fans will have the chance to judge all this for themselves as Heavy Step takes the stage Nov. 30 at Columbia Street West with one of the top ska bands in the country, The Slackers.
The Slackers, born on the Lower East Side of New York, have become friends and elders to Heavy Step, an indication of how far the local band has come and the reputation they are gaining nationally.
Having formed nearly five years ago as Skavosass, Heavy Step has emerged as one of the most popular bands in the Summit City, despite the recent name change. Even with the greatly exaggerated rumors of the death of ska chasing them about the Midwest, Heavy Step manages to pack nightclubs like Columbia Street West with jumping fans on any given weeknight or weekend.
Following two successful CD releases and contributions to the first two 96.3 FM Essentials compilation CDs as Skavosass, the band is currently promoting its first release as Heavy Step. Produced by Vic Ruggiero, keyboardist for the NYC-based The Slackers, the 11-track CD, The Longshot, captures the group's live energy with tight musical performances delivered in digital clarity - and without the din of an appreciative nightclub audience. With all that momentum gained under the name of Skavosass, though, what's up with the name change?
"Our producer said You know, that's not the catchiest name,'" says Roth."We had thought about it before and then he mentioned something to us about it. We thought we could find something a little bit better."
"The reason we stuck with Skavosass before was everybody knows who we are with that name," Maloney says."(Vic Ruggiero's) point was that people don't really know us in New York or nationally."
"Everybody in Fort Wayne knows Skavosass, but how many billions of people are in the United States?" Roth says, acknowledging the slight overstatement with a chuckle."Maybe a fraction of Fort Wayne knows the name."
According to Maloney, Ruggiero has recently served not only as the band's producer, but also as its mentor. Having toured the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan over eight years with The Slackers, Ruggiero has been around the ska block and around the ska world. Heavy Step has taken his experience and guidance quite seriously.
"He's been in the scene for so many years and really patched us into the people we need to know, told us the things that we need to try to do," Maloney says.
"He had some good words of wisdom. You never want to be The Local Band. You never want to be the top local band. You want to be the local band that's out playing everywhere so everybody back home ends up liking you.
"The Blue Moon Boys are the perfect example," Maloney continues."While we were building up in Fort Wayne, they were out playing everywhere else. And then they turn around and now they're like the kings in this town. There are some bands around here that know what the hell they're doing and do it very well - like the Beauties. Eric Coleman knows his stuff. He's another person I talk to a lot."
Ruggiero, who is the vocalist and keyboardist for The Slackers, knows what he's talking about. In their 10-year history, The Slackers have toured the United States, Canada. Europe and Japan, honing their skills and managing to combine Jamaican ska music with 1940s Harlem swing, New Orleans jazz and R & B, mambo and reggae.
In 1996, The Slackers released Better Late Than Never, an album which redefined the ska music of the time. Two years later, they released Question, an hour of original music that again stretched the definition of ska, introducing sitar, Beatle-like harmonies and an African drum beat. The Washington Post called it"one of the mellowest calls to revolution ever recorded" and CMJ New Music report asked,"Why don't all ska records sound so respectful and together?" The hit single,"Have the Time," received heavy MTV airplay.
"The East Coast has the big frat ska scene and we look and listen to a lot of their stuff," Maloney says."(Those bands) come out to the Midwest and there's nobody out here for them to play with. So now they've discovered us and we're all networking and becoming friends with one another. Dave Hillyard from The Slackers said its great playing with a band like us because they go on after us and the monitors are still okay. They don't have some punk rock band thrashing everything."
Consisting of Todd Hembrook (vocals), Dave Snook (trombone, vocals), Jay Freimuth (trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals), Kevin Hockaday (drums, percussion, vocals), Eric Ruthowski (bass), Maloney and Roth, Heavy Step hopes to reach a national audience like their heroes, The Slackers, while keeping their local ties pulled tight. With The Longshot being placed in record stores throughout the nation via Chicago-based Choke Distribution, the men of Heavy Step realize that stepping out of town more often is one of the keys to promoting the record properly.
According to Maloney, the band was close to thrashing things during its recent Halloween date at Columbia Street West. A few missed cues here, some technical difficulties there (wholly undetected by this music journalist and pretty much every other music fan in the house) and another matter altogether caused some tempers to flare.
Was there alcohol involved?
"There always is," says Roth.
"Todd, our singer, had to dress up as Popeye for Halloween," Maloney says."He was so ticked off. His wife made him dress up that way. She was Olive Oyl. He was trying to fight it tooth and nail. He just didn't want to be Popeye. Do you realize how much fun we made of him? Do you know how easy it is to pick at a guy dressed as Popeye? It was like"In the Navy" by the Village People."
When they're not getting mad onstage, both Maloney and Roth blow off steam by completing home repair projects. Maloney works on the house he owns, mastering his domain like a regular Charles Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie fame.
Do people ever call you Charles Ingalls," I ask politely.
No," Maloney quickly replies.
"Maybe we'll start," Roth ponders out loud.
"Yeah, that would be great," Maloney says."I'll love that one. Thanks."