Like most guys in high school band, the members of Skavoovie and the Epitones didn't have dates for their junior prom. But it wasn't because they played tuba or marched around in ill-fitting uniforms with caps and ornamental braiding. Instead, they were too busy with a gig as the evening's featured entertainers to worry about corsages and cummerbunds.
"It went well enough that we decided to do a summer tour," explained trumpeter Jesse Farber. So the ten-member ska band, then a newly formed group of buddies from Newton, Massachusetts, spent the first half of their summer flipping burgers, mowing lawns and performing other chores common to off-duty high-schoolers. Then they hit the road in a van and spent their earnings touring.
"Nobody had ever heard of us, and we didn't even have a demo tape, so we bought that Maximum RocknRoll book called Book Your Own Fucking Life and learned how to do it ourselves." For Skavoovie, touring became an oft-repeated ritual and the best way to disseminate its distinctive blend of traditional ska and jazz. "Obviously, we couldn't tour during the year, so it became a regular summer thing," Farber explains. "We had to pay for it out of our own pockets, but it was totally an adventure, it was totally worth it. It made us feel like a real band."
It wasn't long before other folks began to consider Skavoovie a real band, too. The outfit had the good fortune of forming right outside of Boston at the beginning of the ska revival in the early Nineties. But Skavoovie eschewed the ska-punk sound that defined Boston bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, preferring traditional Jamaican ska à la the Skatalites. Skavoovie's distinguishing trait, though, was its affinity for jazz, which slowly crept into the music and is today the foundation of what the bandmembers have termed "improvisational ska." The group's members (Farber; Ans Purins, vocals; Ben Lewis, trumpet; Ben Jaffe, tenor sax; Joe Wensink, euphonium and trombone; Jon Natchez, alto and baritone sax; Ben Herson, drums; Eugene Cho, keyboards; Ethan D'Ercole, guitar; Rob Jost, bass), most of them still sophomores in high school, were accorded a kind of little-brother status by local ska stars the Allstonians, the Bosstones and Bim Skala Bim.
"I guess our sound went over pretty well, because we were these really little kids trying to play traditional ska," Farber muses. "We were kind of like a novelty in that respect, and I think that helped us at first."
Whatever the initial attraction, Skavoovie won converts the old-fashioned way: by busting ass as working musicians. By the time the bandmembers graduated from high school, they had completed a national tour and Fat Footin', their 1995 debut on Moon Ska Records. Fat Footin' became the fastest-selling debut album in Moon Ska history, and by the time they headed off to various New England colleges in the fall, Skavoovie's members enjoyed the distinction of being nationally known musicians before they even hit their respective campuses.
The distance between those schools proved difficult for Skavoovie. "We couldn't really rehearse, but we'd practice hard during winter breaks," Farber says. "We kept doing shows the whole time--about five a month--but the farthest we could go would be Philadelphia or D.C." With bandmates scattered between Cambridge, New York City and Poughkeepsie, even this modest goal required considerable time and organizational skills. Making it to one gig often entailed a full weekend of travel. But the players managed to keep their musical skills sharp in other ways, mainly through enlisting in various bands. "With all of us in college and with it being impossible to rehearse, we all just jumped on a bunch of side projects," Farber explains. He and Cho joined a live hip-hop band, Natchez took to playing serious jazz gigs in Boston, and other members dabbled in drum-and-bass and deejaying. But Jost, who also plays French horn, won the prize hands down for most interesting part-time job when he played in the pit for Paul Simon's ill-fated Broadway musical Capeman.
Skavoovie scored again with its second album, Ripe, in 1997. For an album recorded during vacations and holidays, it was surprisingly tight and fluent, leavened by the broadening jazz influence the musicians had developed separately during their time apart. But the strain of commuting to shows took its toll, both psychologically and financially, and last year they decided they needed a change. "We agreed we couldn't do school and the band," Farber says. "We were going to be perpetually dissatisfied with both if we tried to do them at the same time. Plus, we wanted to get a new album out." So after six years of having their production and tour schedules dictated by school calendars, Skavoovie's members agreed to postpone college for a year and move into a house located in Brighton, just outside of Boston. The results of the cohabitation were marathon practice sessions and a quantum leap forward in the band's development. By ridding themselves of exams and classes, Farber and the others were able to focus on their preferred assignment: crafting a third album.
"When we weren't practicing, we'd be off writing songs," Farber recalls. "There were these hyper-intense periods of creating for us separated by six-week stretches on the road, where we did nothing. It sounds weird, but it was a healthy balance of intense work and personal space."
The result of the band's effort is its latest offer, The Growler, released in June. The music itself progresses far beyond anything Skavoovie has previously recorded, a point that's not lost on the band ("We're all, uh, pretty embarrassed about the first record now," Farber concedes). Instead, it ventures far beyond traditional ska, incorporating elements of jazz and big band. The Growler follows an arc that mirrors the band's own progress, from the opener, "Boyo," which boasts classic horn lines and sly vocals, to jazzy, big-band numbers like "Foster's Ghost" and "Any Which Way," which shed any semblance of ska in favor of pure improvisational jazz.
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"There's some pretty different stuff on there," Farber notes. "I think we've gotten a little more comfortable with breaking out of the conventions. We don't need to assume that there's going to be standard ska beats and standard off-beats in every bar of each song. But in terms of working within a genre and also trying to stretch that genre, I think we're doing all right."
Farber explains all of this with a slight twinge of regret. The Boston ska scene, along with the ska scene nationwide, has declined slightly in the last two years, which leads one to wonder what the reaction to The Growler would have been if it had hit in the middle of ska's popularity. While it's selling well enough to please the band's new label, Shanachie, Farber jokes that "theoretically, if we had done this a year earlier, we probably could have been, like, mega-stars."
But after a pause, he changes his mind. "It's much better to do it now, because this is when we needed to do it if we were going to keep going," he decides. "Besides, now that we've gotten past that popularity thing, with all the little kids in their outfits gone, we get an audience who are really interested in the music."
Skavoovie and the Epitones, the Dingees and the Ducky Boys. 8 p.m. Friday, August 13, Aztlan Theatre, 972 Santa Fe Drive, $8-$10, 303-573-0188.