Ska: The word can cause the most cynical of sneers to cross the faces of punk aficionados. (It's the same look you'd get if you suggested to a seasoned skateboarder that his sport is a brother to inline skating.) So why on earth have the eight brave souls in Mail Order Children dedicated themselves to working in the most commercially exhausted genre to come along since flannel-shirt wearers began pouring out of a northwestern town called Seattle earlier this decade?
The answer to that question is more complicated than it seems. Although the Children are generally assigned to the skacore camp, they don't think they belong there. Trumpeter Jake Levy puts it simply: "Too much ska is not what we all want to play."
Rock 'til You Drop, the group's self-released EP, backs up Levy's claim. Unlike those third-wave ska bands whose use of rock-steady beats fades into formula, the Children refuse to churn out ready-for-radio hybrids that sound like background music for a Mountain Dew commercial. Instead, they create tunes that fit into less definitive categories--like "quick" and "quicker." Whereas ska punks harmonize over reggae-inflected guitar figures, Levy and his mates (saxophonists Travis Sprague, Phaedra Lankutis and Cameron Miller, vocalist Tom Helman, guitarist Andy Burr, drummer Luke Goodwin and bassist Chuck Coffey) add horn lines like exclamation points to numbers that race along at tremendous speeds.
"We play too fast to skank," Levy says. "Kids get tired after the first thirty seconds of doing that dance."
"Sometimes we're too punk for the ska crowd," Sprague admits.
Of course, there's still plenty of ska in the Children's music--but the players touch upon the style without embracing its cliches. The usually quiet Helman sums up the combo's approach in a deep, unassuming voice. "Fuck all that rude-boy shit," he says.
Helman's declaration makes Miller nervous. "That should alienate some other bands," he notes. But neither he nor anyone else moves to retract the statement. The Children don't have anything against ska, but they don't want to be defined by it.
It wasn't always so. In fact, Sprague, who'd never previously been in a band, and Burr, whose experience was in what he calls "I-don't-know-how-to-play punk bands," originally formed the group in October 1996 because they loved ska. The pair subsequently posted musicians-wanted ads around the campus of the University of Colorado-Boulder, which Burr was attending, and after six months of personnel shifts, the lineup solidified. However, the music that resulted wasn't the straight-up ska that Sprague and Burr had originally envisioned but a mix of punk and ska supplemented with touches of jazz, funk, hip-hop and other styles. "Life Goes On" is an example: It mates punk guitars and intricate brass lines with reggae rhythms, funky bass and ad-libbed words that Helman spews like a volcano. If there's a message in his prose, Helman says, it can be found in the passion he expends while delivering it. "I don't find myself writing songs about what I believe. Emotions ring true for a lot more people."
Improvisation is one of Helman's favorite lyrical tools, but it's not the only one he uses. "I just start with what the music makes me feel and then I go from there," he explains. "Sometimes the words don't really fit the music, because it's hard to write lyrics for our songs. The beat is really complicated." Still, he tries not to let the trickiness of the grooves dilute the aggression and ideals of the punk rock that inspires him. "Punk music is such a powerful medium," he says.
When it came time to record Rock 'til You Drop, the Children decided to go to one of the area's foremost punk studios: the Blasting Room, a Fort Collins facility owned by drummer Bill Stevenson and other members of the Descendants.
"We met Bill," says Goodwin, sounding star-struck.
"He was the greatest guy ever," Helman points out.
While at the Blasting Room, the band recorded eight songs in just two days--a dizzying pace even by the standards of the Children, whose average set clocks in at around thirty minutes. "It would be fun if we had two weeks, but we don't really have the money to do it," Coffey says. "We have all the same songs on everything we've released. It's so pathetic. We've written at least five new songs since we recorded."
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Until the Children can afford to put out a full-length, their songs are available on Rock 'til You Drop and a couple of other places--specifically, a Soda Jerk Records compilation called Punker Than Your Mother and a seven-inch titled Thinking of Starting a Family, pressed by Asian Man Records, a burgeoning ska imprint. The band is also spreading its sound via live performances in Boulder and beyond. The musicians toured all the way from Lawrence, Kansas, to New York City this summer and had a good time doing it. Instead of offering road-weary stories of homesickness, monotony and broken-down vehicles, Levy bubbles with enthusiasm. "Every night we got to play again," he gushes.
Did the sometimes sparse crowds they encountered bring them down? Hardly. "I'd rather play for five people who love us instead of fifty who hate us," Coffey says.
"We never had any worries," Levy chimes in. "Except how to get to the next town."
The backlash against ska may cause the performers more concerns. But Coffey thinks the group's hard-to-categorize sound will prevent the Mail Order Children from being returned to sender. As he puts it, "We've never played to any crowds that haven't liked us because we have a horn section.