Interview by Andrew Fifield
Remember that Gap commercial with Brian Setzer's version of Jive and Wail on it? Remember the big-band craze that came after it?
Remember that Volkswagen commercial that had Mr. Roboto by Styx in it? Remember the kitsch revival of Styx?
Remember No Doubt? Remember the ska craze?
All these three are linked in that they were embraced as a pop-culture phenomenon that was quickly abandoned by an ever-fickle music populace in light of the next pretty package.
These three are also alive and well. Big band still has zoot suits selling off the racks in respectable clothing stores. Styx just completed a cross-country tour (no joke!) and ska still has plenty of bands still churning out great, catchy records, despite a sense of indifference that seems to permeate mainstream consumers.
"There's still a lot of people that like ska," says Kevin Gunther, trumpet player and vocalist of New Jersey's Catch 22.
"The trends come and go, of course. There are certain bands in all of these trends that come and go that stick around. We hope to be one of them."
Named after Joseph Heller's classic novel of irony, Catch 22 have stuck around, and they continue to do be one of the best ska bands out there, proven again with their latest release Alone In A Crowd.
The record is everything you would expect from a ska record. Catchy, infectious and saturated with horns. What puts it ahead is pop intelligence that some of the bigger ska bands lacked and what inevitably forced them to be shoved out of the mainstream. Songs like 'San Francisco Pay Phone' and 'The Never Ending Story' have the smart writing that was completely voided on other ska groups' later efforts.
"Our success and ability to adapt has come from a lot of band changes," says Gunther. The group has gone through many changes since its inception in 1996.
"We got together originally because we were fed up with the stagnation of the ska scene. We wanted to make it fresh again. Our revolving line up kind of mirrors that. The band itself has not stagnated. We kept evolving."
The current line up which appears to be the final draft of Catch 22 features a new facet to the band, and one which Gunther thinks has improved the group's performance.
"The best thing we did was hire a singer who just sings (Jeff Davidson). We always had an instrumentalist singing, but it's a lot better when our vocalist can get up in the crowd's face. It adds to the energy of our live shows."
Catch 22 brought their live show to Canada on the Sno Jam tour that toured Ontario and Quebec (surprise!).
"Canada is awesome," gushes Gunther of The Great White North. "The fans there have been great to us and we also have an amazing show. And you plan your shows so meticulously. You never run out of beer."
Beer, fans and snow aside, Catch 22 are at its core a live band. Their diverse influences (band tastes range from raggae, to classical to Weezer) clash on stage to deliver the crash that occurs when punk, hardcore, ska and swing all miss the stop sign at a four-way intersection.
"We all bring our own tastes to the table, and we all try to incorporate what we like into our sound. It's almost a songwriting recipe as opposed to a formula."
And will Catch 22 be back in the kitchen anytime soon?
"We are not currently cooking with the recipe right now," admits Gunther. "After you write and record a new record, you get a little burned out. There are always a couple guys who are brainstorming, but there hasn't been any serious writing,"
Serious is how the band takes their craft, despite its fading from view in recent years. However, Gunther thinks beleaguered file-swapping service Napster could fuel the next insurgence.
"The record companies are the only ones who are really afraid. A band has to sell a lot of records to make money off royalties. That all goes to the labels. Without radio support in most places, Napster allows grass roots fan bases to spring up anywhere in the world. If a fan downloads a song, digs it and comes to one of our shows and buys a T-shirt, that's money in our pocket and another fan that wouldn't be there without it."
Embracing both the supposed bane of the record industry and a genre that seemed destined to disappear. Sounds like it could evolve into a no-win situation.
Sounds like a novel I know...