By Bree Davies
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The A-OKs met on the Internet. As frontman Mark Swan notes, "We're pretty much the billboard band for the success of finding people on Craigslist." But while the players linked up essentially sight unseen, you'd hardly know it, watching the natural chemistry and sense of camaraderie among them. The initial ad, placed by original member, bassist and vocalist Christian Jaramillo, is what initially drew in Swan and trumpet player Nicole Orts.
"I think it was basically 'Ska punk band looking for horn players,'" Orts recalls. "It was the only ad for that kind of thing there, so I decided to call him." Jaramillo grew up here, but he's originally from New York, as is Orts, who hails from Marlboro but moved around the country for work before settling down in Colorado, where she did an internship at the Broadmoor.
Swan is from Maine, but he grew up in Colorado Springs, where his father was stationed at Peterson Air Force Base. Guitarist Justin Cantrell, who played bass in Havok early on, and saxophonist Mark Malpezzi also came to Colorado from the East Coast, while Bob Vokac, who recently replaced college-bound Chris Roob on drums, came from Ohio.
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Trombone player Matt Sanchez is the sole Colorado native in the band. But that's not the only distinction he holds in the group: He's also the only member who didn't join the ranks through a Craigslist ad. "We actually found him through Mike Grimm, who was in Skaskank Redemption," says Orts. "Mike is now in the Dendrites, and we asked him if he knew any trombone players, and he told us he knew a guy, but that he was really busy and didn't know if he could make it all the time — but that he was definitely ska."
Before seeing the ad in February 2008, neither Orts nor Swan had been in a band. Orts started playing trumpet in the third grade after being inspired by the sound of her babysitter's father playing the instrument. She played in jazz band and brass ensembles through high school, but quit by the time she went to college, only to pick the instrument up again after graduating.
Swan originally played organ for the A-OKs, but he eventually switched to lead vocals. Although his brothers were both athletes, he gravitated toward music, putting the piano lessons and the time he spent in the school choir to good use. "Joke's on them," he notes, "because now I swear and curse in the band." Before joining the A-OKs, Swan says, he was "an antisocial nerd." The turning point for him came when he saw a local band called the Straightaways, which not only taught him much of what he knows about ska, but also made him confident that he could play in a band.
Orts had a similar epiphany when she saw Synthetic Elements sometime after moving here. "They blew me away," she remembers. "And I realized I could do that." But even before discovering local bands making quality ska music, everyone in the band had come into a real consciousness of music and identity during the brief yet massive popularity of the '90s ska revival.
"I think for most of the members of our band, we grew up right at the exact time for that music, when it was popular, to hit us in such a way that we would always be affected by it," says Swan. "It was a very small time in American music history when ska and ska punk were basically pop music, and it was the thing, and it was on the radio. When that was happening, that's when we were emotionally susceptible to music."
"We're all huge fans of bands like NOFX, Reel Big Fish and all of those guys that were around in that mid-'90s era, when we were getting into music," adds Orts. "I think you can definitely tell by our music, too, that we have been influenced by all the bands from the '90s. Less Than Jake, of course. With me, it was hearing the horns and going, 'Oh, horns can be in a popular band? That's really cool!'"
The members have had the good fortune of sharing the stage with some of their heroes, including Less Than Jake, Suburban Legends and Orts's favorite group of all time, the Mad Caddies. One of the rare acts that has navigated the true underground scene by playing in DIY spaces, the A-OKs have also established themselves in more mainstream venues.
"When we first started, everyone played at the Climax Lounge," Orts recalls fondly. "Even though it was a bunch of bands playing until one o'clock, we still found a place to play. Blast-O-Mat was always a good place for everyone to play. Now it's Seventh Circle Music Collective and keeping that local, underground-kind-of-scene place to play. We did find it hard to break into the mainstream shows, like trying to get Soda Jerk to notice us and trying to get anyone else to notice us. Once it finally happened, it was just amazing. So it worked out well in the end."