Following is the first of Rockapella's new CASA blog. For the first entry, Scott Leonard and Jeff Thacher answer some questions posed by Evan Feist:
How/Why did Rockapella go from a quarter to a quintet? Was there an established need for a vocal percussionist? How did Jeff Thacher end up in the group?
[Scott] In 1991, Masahiro Ikumi, producer of our 1st record, built rhythm tracks for the record using sampled vocal drum sounds we made. We thought it would be cool to have a beat on stage. At that time there was a group in NYC called True Image that was using a live vocal percussionist on stage. We tried to borrow their guy, but after a few missed rehearsals, we decided to look elsewhere. The 1st vocal percussionist Rockapella had was a guy named Kenny X. He was an amazing virtuoso drummer/beat box/performer. He toured with us for about a year, but after an offstage incident involving a limousine, we decided to renew our search for a mouth drummer. I think we then made the offer to a guy named Andrew out of San Francisco from a group called The House Jacks. He turned us down. We called Jeff Thacher, who had auditioned months earlier in 1993 or so, and we've been lucky to have him ever since.
Rockapella tends to be in the more classic standard range of a cappella covers. With such great arrangers (and percussionist), why not try more contemporary cover material?
[Scott] I've got nothing against newer songs. I just do stuff that I think'll be good for the live show. I don't really do songs just to do songs. I have to have some idea for a new approach to a song that'll resonate with the audience. I guess our audiences are so diverse that to do a new song recognizable to a smaller amount of people might not have as widespread an appeal. Might as well do an original, of which we gots plenty.
How closely did you work with Spike Lee and how was working on “Do It A Cappella” different from “Carmen Sandiego” or “Folgers?”
[Scott] None of us worked with that guy at all. There's nobody left from the 4 guys that did the Spike Lee show. I think that was done in 1990, and I arrived in 1991. I remember seeing him courtside while we sang at the NBA All-Star Game. He didn't look like he recognized us.
Wiki tells me that Rockapella started in 1986. So what’s the deal with the Nylons having an album called “Rockapella” in 1989?
[Scott] I think Elliott Kerman told me that they attempted to stop The Nylons from using that title, but were unsuccessful. He could probably elaborate on that better than I.
Why a cappella? It’s obvious that all members (previous and current) are obviously good singers, but how/when/where did the leap happen from singing together to forming an a cappella group?
[Scott] Elliott Kerman and Sean Altman sang a cappella together at Brown University, so I think that's where it started for them. For me, I've always loved vocal harmony groups, from The Mills Brothers to The Andrews Sisters to The Jackson 5 to The Beach Boys to Bread, etc. I sang with a barbershop/doo wop group at my high school in Indianapolis. When I was in college and singing at Disney World, I remember liking The Nylons. After singing at Tokyo Disneyland for 2 years, and having a solo record released there, I had to decide whether I would stay over there or head back to the states. I'd always wanted to live in NYC, but wanted to have a job. I sent my stuff to various opportunities, one of which happened to be a group called Rockapella, which was looking for a tenor with certain qualities. Though they weren't well-known, I went up, sang with them, and decided to move to NYC. I figured at least I'd have something to do, and here I am in 2010, still doin' it.
There’s a bit of disparity between who is the “father of modern vocal percussion.” Some attribute this title to Wes Carroll and some to Jeff Thacher. Any thoughts on this?
[Jeff] Not sure where you're getting that from. There is an ancient proverb, which I just made up, that goes: "Publicity does not solely a 'father' make." Neither my constant publicity with the mighty Rockapella, nor his instructional video publicity and helpful website. I don't think there ever was one "father." Like most history, the details are more interesting than the summary. The truth is that circa 1991, Wes was in school, and myself and Andrew Chaikin (aka Kid Beyond, the original House Jacks mouth drummer) were simultaneously performing VP publicly within the early Five O'Clock Shadow (FOCS) and the House Jacks. Andrew and I each had a distinct style. Rockapella hired me full-time for touring, national TV and radio appearances with them in early 1993. At that point, Andrew and I were the only VPers in a cappella-land making any money at it from what I recall. Doing it full-time with an a cappella group was still a new idea at that point, if you can believe it. After a while, many other groups saw the writing on the wall and hired full-time VP guys. The later edition of FOCS hired Wes. When I used to hang out with my old FOCS friends, Wes was there and growing into that job, and he asked me questions about making sounds. He eventually ran with his style, much like Andrew and I had run with ours. Much later, he saw a niche and came up with the instructional videos business. He's a very industrious guy, and he took action where some of us may have hesitated on the instructional front. He's certainly influenced a lot of people, because many learned the basics watching his videos. But we could all claim the very same or greater influence easily. The important thing I've always said is that you should develop your own sound, because there's a lot of direct imitation out there and you have so many options open to you. Imitation is inherent in the learning process for young VPers, so learn the basics however you learn them, pick up some tricks along the way from others, but keep evolving. Be strong and creative. I have a few personal friends working in the a cappella community who started out doing elements of my drum solos beat-for-beat....and admit it to me. We're good friends, but I chew them out for it. Because they're talented and smart and should be able to come up with their own stuff. Eventually they do. If you're being me, or Wes, or whomever, go be yourself....you'll be glad you did. But if you're learning from somebody who started after the mid-90s, you're learning from a chain of many "fathers"...
Is it infuriating or flattering that there are SO many a cappella tracks out there on the internet (good and bad) attributed to Rockapella?
[Jeff] It's not flattering, but I'm not one to be infuriated by such things. It's like a mosquito that never goes away. You'd think confusing a professional quintet studio recording with a 15-man live college group wouldn't be so popular. Sheesh. But it's partly Rockapella's fault for grabbing the name first. Let's face it - it's a very descriptive name. iTunes still throws in the occasional rap artist when you search our name. The funny thing is that the original boatload of mis-labeled MP3s were uploaded almost 15 years ago, and those files are STILL out there being passed around. Apparently only one college student was responsible, and he came up to us after a show one time and apologized. No joke. For the record, we don't do "Breakfast At Tiffanys" or The Care Bears Theme Song or Dave Matthews covers. Please enjoy our discography (with sound clips) at www.rockapella.com...
Besides rarities like “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch”, they aren’t a lot of apparent vocal effects of processes. What do you think about the current wave of aca super-production?
[Jeff] Did you mean "vocal effects *or processing*"? (typo)? "Grinch" has very few effects...not sure what you're referring to, but I will answer:
Well, we've got a few more than "Grinch", but we've never gone off the deep end. There has definitely been a trend of hyper-compressed, track-by-track a cappella recording in the past 10 years. Then heavy pitch correction enters into the picture and the resultant straight-tone compressed voice tracks ensure recent a cappella albums have started to sound very alike, and to my ears, a bit dull. But you can take it or leave it in the pro world. Pro groups are highly motivated to be unique...to differentiate in some way and to do original material...and you're only dealing with 4-6 voices there. It's the collegiate recording world that's, in my opinion, suffering from sameness. The backing tracks on many collegiate albums now sound nothing like the actual collegiate groups...they sound identically processed and interchangeable with other groups applying the same studio techniques. Plus the same bass octave effect and overall sound on every album's bass guys...and often the same drum treatments. My brothers in a cappella recording and production seem to be in lock-step on this because it's been good business for them. One group wants to sound "as good" as another, and I follow the logic of it all and can't blame them too much, but I believe a hybrid approach is better, or things will just get silly. Let us hear what your group really sounds like at the same time that you are purifying your studio tracks a bit. All you've got going for you is YOU. Everybody else is doing that John Mayer, Vampire Weekend, or Kings Of Leon cover too. Yippee. Let's hear more character than just your best soloists. Let's hear the sound, and at least a modicum of reality. When it all comes together, that'll win those collegiate competitions and awards. I think Rockapella has always been fundamentally a live act that happens to make high-quality studio albums. If you plunk yourself down in front of a camera at 7am on a local morning TV show, are you going to be able to impress and stand out from the crowd with your voices? Or will it sound like mush....or worse? That's a test I think any vocal group should aspire to, and I'm grateful to be a part of a group that has always pulled it off. I'd also like to think that our studio albums, past and future, reflect the real us, but fit on the radio. It comes down to the basics: sing good songs well. That's what we're all in it for. Good recording is so much easier that way.
Was the original band (from Brown University) called “Rockapella”?
[Jeff] They were. Several alumni of a Brown group called the Hijinks formed the early Rockapella, and began performing in New York and elsewhere.
I hear Rockapella has a new album in the works, can you tells us a bit about what can be expected?
[Scott] This'll be the 1st new Rockapella album in - I think - 6 years. I think this'll be a real authentically a cappella album that hopefully sounds a lot like we do live. Instead of multi-tracking, and a lot of layering, the individual voices and the arrangements will largely be featured. The bulk of the album is made up of songs with which fans will be familiar, and that we've had time to kind of polish. The other sort of concept to the album is that each guy is contributing a song as well. The resulting variety and camaraderie are fun and surprising, and I think should add a lot to the album.
Some of the photos that appear on Rockapella.com show a new stage set-up/new production. Can you talk about this and what fans can expect to see at the next Rockapella concert?
[Scott] We've got a great new production team behind us, and they've helped add new stage design and multi-media to the show. It's still the Rockapella sensibility, but there's now a bit more to take in. And with our latest addition, Steven Dorian, adding his brand of hunky excitement, I can't help but feel a new kind of energy behind Rockapella.
Stay tuned for more from Rockapella!
The guys will be writing monthly, and we'd like to hear what YOU want to know about Rockapella. Would you like to ask next month's questions? If you have 10+ great questions for the guys (that weren't asked in this entry), contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author:
Evan Feist has been composing, arranging, teaching, and singing a cappella music and vocal percussion for over eight years and has his Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Music and is working towards his Master' Degree in Music Education at Columbia University, Teacher's College. He has created and managed many successful groups, such as the A Cappella Innovations’ honored Choral Pleasure, SUNY Purchase Soul Voices, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK Honors Choir. Evan is the founder and president of Oven Feast Productions, and the business manager of Stacks of Wax Records, currently based out of Jersville Studios. He dabbles in all things musical and plays the piano, drums, percussion, trumpet, shofar, bass, and guitar. Evan is currently building a collegiate mixed a cappella group in NYC (open to ALL students in the area)