Alex Desert isn't really a swinger; he just played one in the movies. Many fans know the 28-year-old singer less for fronting the first-rate Los Angeles ska band called Hepcat than for his role in Swingers, actor/director Jon Favreau's 1996 cult hit about the L.A. swing scene. But Desert (pronounced "day-zair"), who played the lone black man in the group of struggling twentysomethings at the center of the film, isn't complaining.
"The music and the acting career--they're both taking off at the same time," he notes. "I can actually say to myself that I will be leaving a footprint in the sand before I kick the bucket. I'm at the age now where things are really starting to happen--where all my friends are starting to do their thing."
In real life, Desert swears that he's devoted to ska, not swing, and on Hepcat's Right on Time, recently issued by Hellcat Records (a division of Epitaph), he proves it. Along with his eight bandmates (vocalist Greg Lee, keyboardist/ vocalist Deston Berry, bassist Dave Fuentes, tenor saxophonist Efren Santana, alto saxophonist Raul Talavera, trumpeter Kincaid Smith, drummer Scott Abels and guitarist Aaron Owens), Desert creates songs that embrace the style's traditions without falling victim to the stereotypes that make so many of today's ska revivalists practically interchangeable. Critics have responded favorably to the disc (even Time magazine gave it a splashy writeup), and so have listeners, making Hepcat an overnight smash nearly a decade in the making.
The idea for the group sprang to life during the late Eighties shortly after Desert and Lee met. "Greg's dad used to work at Muscle Shoals [a famed recording studio in Alabama]," Desert remembers, "so the family was always having barbecues, and there was always music playing and singers and songwriters around."
Among the vocalists who cut sides at Muscle Shoals was reggae and ska legend Toots Hibbert, whose music the elder Lee favored. Greg, too, loved the music, and he found a compatriot in Desert. He'd been in a doo-wop group called the Subway Symphony that sang in the subways of New York, where he was raised, but nothing spoke to him like ska. "We'd always been into the old-school stuff, and we realized that nobody was playing it," he says. "We originally just wanted to play a couple of gigs, but after a while people really started liking it, so we wrote some more songs. Now it's nine years later, and this is what we do."
Desert didn't spend all of this time on the road, largely because he was often preoccupied by his other passion. After receiving formal dramatic training at his New York high school, he moved to California to pursue acting professionally. He soon discovered that his knowledge of ska could be parlayed into jobs in front of the camera. "I worked on this show directly out of school called TV 101," Desert recounts, giggling. "It was the bomb, man! It was about this video-journalism class. It aired on CBS in 1988 for, like, sixteen or seventeen episodes. I played a rude boy and got the TV 101 job because I was one."
The TV 101 role fortified Desert's desire to make it as an actor, but he never lost his love of music--and because Hepcat's club appearances were generally on the weekends, they usually didn't interfere with his other vocation. Not always, though. "I got the chance to do a movie called PCU," Desert says. "I was tripping on that one, because I didn't know if I wanted to do it [and miss Hepcat shows]."
In the end, Desert wound up taking the PCU part, which again allowed him to draw on his ska background; he portrayed a dreadlocked character named Moses. Favreau, who was also in the cast, was slated to wear the same hairstyle--a fact that drew Desert and him together. "He had dreads, so I showed him how to be a dread," Desert says. "I was like, 'Come on, man, this is all new to you.' So we went and saw a double feature of The Harder They Come and Rockers and went and tooled around the city in the black neighborhoods and stuff like that. It was funny."
This friendship led to Desert's now infamous role in Swingers, a role he has trouble escaping at times. He claims not to mind that his newfound quasi-fame often follows him into the concert hall, but he admits that he hadn't anticipated it. "Actually, I kind of dig it when people are cool about recognizing me," he says. "But you have no idea how prevalent it is until you're in the middle of, like, Lawrence, Kansas, and some drunk dude yells out, 'HEY, IT'S THAT BLACK GUY FROM SWINGERS. DUUUUDE!!'"
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In the near future, barflies may be identifying Desert with another project; he's slated to appear opposite Ted Danson in Becker, a new CBS series due in September. "It's going to be fun," he promises. "I'll be playing a blind man who runs a newsstand, and basically he's a foil to Danson's character, who's a doctor."
He adds, however, that he isn't putting ska on the back burner. Given the impact made by Swingers, he's convinced that audiences would be interested in a film about the L.A. ska scene--and he'd like to direct it. "I've got a couple of script ideas, so Greg and I might do something like that," he reveals. "I'd like to learn as much as I can acting-wise first. But once I have the confidence and the ability to tell a story well, I'll tell that one."
In the meantime, Desert sees no reason to choose between acting and singing with Hepcat. "I love the band, and I know the band will always have a place for me," he says. "It's taken all this time and all these years to figure out what I'm doing acting-wise and music-wise. So I'll try and do both for as long as I can."
Hepcat. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 18, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $10.50, all ages, 443-3399 or 329-6353.