Roka Hueka's Blake Pendergrass on New Record ¡Volar! and Benefit Show

Roka Hueka's first studio album, ¡Volar!, is a perfect way to kick off the summer.
Roka Hueka's first studio album, ¡Volar!, is a perfect way to kick off the summer. Tim Dwenger

While recording their new album, ¡Volar!, the seven members of the Denver-based Latin ska band Roka Hueka aimed to polish their studio sound without losing the energy they bring to the stage. After several weekends of laying down tracks, the band was satisfied with the results.

Ahead of the album-release show at the Mercury Cafe on June 7, drummer Blake Pendergrass spoke to Westword about the band’s approach to songwriting, Latin and ska music around Denver, and the band's annual benefit show for the Denver Metro Sanctuary Coalition and Casa de Paz, organizations that offer support to individuals and families facing deportation and detention. 

Westword: What’s the story with the new record? Did you do anything differently during the recording process?

Blake Pendergrass: It’s a twelve-song album, and all the tunes are original Roka songs. This will officially be our second album, and it’s something that we’re pretty proud of. It’s also our first official, real studio album — real quality production, mixing and mastering.

Was Red, your previous record, more of a DIY recording situation?

Red was very DIY in terms of recording. We actually did it on Santa Fe Drive, kind of at a vacant restaurant. It was a DIY recording where we played each song, like, twice. It was a totally live recording, and it actually didn’t get much mastering or treatment. This one is much more professional and sounds really, really good.

What were you trying to accomplish with a studio album? How do you feel like you did?

I think it accomplished the vision of what we’ve always had for how we want to sound and how we want to present ourselves. With the evolution of the band, it speaks to where we’re at, and it captures the energy, and it captures all the nuances of our music.

We’re a fairly large band with seven members, so a high-quality recording really captures what we want.

What’s something specific to ¡Volar! that has you guys excited?

We have kind of a classic ska tune that we were able to get dubbed, like a dub radio tune, and we actually sent that off to Jay Nugent, the guitar player for a band called The Slackers, a real established ska band. They’re maybe the preeminent ska band touring in the U.S., I would say. They’re super-cool.

What do you think really shines through on this record?

Our songwriting has definitely matured. A lot of the tunes that are on this record represent different styles, which we’ve done before. But definitely the structures and arrangements are way more mature than our earlier stuff.

We have almost a classic soul feel on this one, along with the original stuff — traditional ska. And then we have a punk song, which I don’t think we’ve put out before. We’ve got a pretty diverse range of tunes. They’re definitely all something we feel is maybe a step forward for us musically and sonically.

Was the variance in musical styles intentional, or did that come up organically in the songwriting process?

We’ve always had a backbone of ska, and there’s always been diverse variations of it. But just playing together for the last couple of years, I think we’re a more cohesive band. It’s probably the natural trajectory of the writing process: getting better, getting more streamlined, the arrangements getting a little more mature, as well.

Walk me through the actual Roka Hueka record-writing process.

For a lot of our stuff, we kind of credit everybody as part of the writing process. One musician might bring a concept – maybe a simple arrangement or melody, or a fairly finished product — and present it to the band. At rehearsal, we’ll workshop it and just make changes and play around with it until it feels fully formed.

It’s kind of a group process; the song might evolve or change, or we might not move forward with it if we don’t think it’s the best material.

Has that always been the case?

Yeah, that’s pretty much how we’ve always written. Just someone bringing in that initial idea. Some people might have an idea that they’ve recorded on their telephone, playing guitar or piano, and it could really be a pretty simple structure, or it could be more developed in terms of a horn or vocal melody. Then the collaboration happens in the space where we write. It really is a collaborative process.

What was the most challenging part of making this record?

I think probably finding time to get into the studio to do it. We all work full-time jobs outside of the band, so the most difficult part was really scheduling the studio time. I want to say we did it over the course of three or four weekends; it just took a while to get the rhythm section, and then the horns came in, and vocals, backup vocals, and then any additional accompaniment that we had. It’s also [challenging] coming up with funds to get a good recording in the studio.

That can’t be cheap.

Yeah, but it’s worth it. Definitely worth it.

What's the most rewarding part of how this record turned out?

I think the record coming out and then the show that we’re doing is sort of like the big reward: releasing it out to the world, the product that we’ve all poured a lot of time and energy into.

I think all the songs on it are really good, and we’re excited for people to hear it. Seeing it come to fruition is a big reward.

Was there ever a moment during the recording process where you were able to really see how far the band had come since it began in 2014?

One of the things that the recording process really makes you do is it makes you get really good and really tight at the songs you’re recording. For various reasons, you’re in the studio for a limited amount of time, and you don’t want to spend studio time practicing, so one of the things that I think is really good about recording, which we did with the other album as well, is it really forces you to rehearse and focus on details of all the songs. Coming out of the studio, you know the tunes better than you ever would have if not for the recording process.

Do you feel like Roka’s relationship with Denver has changed over the years?

I think we’ve definitely established ourselves by playing in Denver. We have a really awesome music community that we’re a part of. We sort of bridge the gap between the ska community and people that are into ska, and the Latin music scene that we’re also a part of.

On both sides of that, there are a lot of really awesome local bands that we love playing with — like Los Mocochetes, who are playing with us for the album release show. Bands like them and Pink Hawks — and on the other side of it, what we call our ska family: bands like The Dendrites, The Alcapones and Blue Kings.

Ska has always been its own niche, but I think in Denver, it seems to have really grown in the last couple years. There seems to be a ska revival happening over the last couple of years, which is really cool.

Do you see this record as a big stepping stone to new things for Roka Hueka? It sounds like things have been refined, edges have been sanded down, and you’re headed in an exciting direction.

Certainly a momentous thing for us. It’s been a long time in the making, in terms of the songwriting and the recording process. The last couple of years we’ve done a fundraiser show, and it’s usually a bunch of bands. This year, we’re going to put out a seven-inch vinyl record of two new songs not on this CD.

That record will be put out by Snappy Little Numbers, and Cerveceria Colorado is a local brewery that’s sponsoring it. All the sales of this record will go to two organizations: Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition and Casa de Paz. They’re also the two groups that have been beneficiaries of [our annual benefit concert, Territorio Liberado] over the last couple years. We don’t have a date yet, we’re waiting on the vinyl timeline, but it will likely be in October.

Roka Hueka album-release show, with Los Mocochetes, 8 p.m. Friday, June 7, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street.
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Ben Wiese is a writer in Denver. He covers music for Westword.
Contact: Ben Wiese