HomeInterview With Rockapella's Jeff Thacher

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New CD, the Future of Vocal percussion, and Food References!

Hello good readers and fans of Rockapella! I am excited to bring you this interview with vocal percussion legend, Jeff Thacher. Rockapella, the international touring sensation, is set to release its first studio album since 2002. I had a chance to talk to Jeff about the new album, vocal percussion and the state of a cappella. I had a blast doing this and learned a lot in the process. I hope that you will have a similar experience while reading the interview. So let's get started!

Del: Okay, first off thanks so much for taking time out to do this interview, Jeff. I know the a cappella world is buzzing about the "New Rockapella" and of course, the new CD.

It's funny, after all that's happened to Rockapella over many years, I've been through several renewals, but I think all the pieces fall into place sometimes, and this is demonstrably that feeling. Lots of newness can be a musically healthy thing.

Del: Absolutely! And we're definitely glad to be a part of it as fans. But first, what would an interview with you be without a little VP talk?

Jeff: By all means - unavoidable! I never thought VP would be such a big part of my identity, but life has a way of doing with you what it wants. 

Del: We all know the history. We know how it started and the huge part you had in its emergence. But I'm actually curious about what you think of the recent national attention VP, beatboxing and a cappella in general have been receiving with things like Blake Lewis on American Idol, Straight No Chaser's recent success and of course, NBC's "The Sing-Off".
Jeff: Not to mention "Glee’s" enormous success, though that's just a parallel. Focus on vocals in general is more than ever. Compare it to '90s grunge, or '80s synths, or '00's whatever....it's really a fresh awareness of something so ....human...for lack of a better word. We're in the business of human music, in the purest sense. Honestly, after so many years of trying to convince people you can be all-vocal, it's a pleasant little surprise. Nobody blinks when you put out an a cappella record now.  It's just a question of HOW you do it. Rockapella's really being true to ourselves. Beneath the studio shine, you'll hear us....what we've always delivered. Let's hope it's received more readily than ever.

Del: Exactly! And I think the field is wide open for a cappella. We're already hearing a cappella in commercials and jingles on national ads. I think that soon we will see a cappella in movie soundtracks and even...on the radio. That seemed implausible back when we got started in this music.

Jeff: Let's hope overexposure is a long way off! But...sorry - back to vocal percussion.

Del: I have always wanted to ask you what you thought of Freddie Feldman's Th60 Thumper throat mic. Have you ever tried it?

Very briefly. In 1997 when I first strapped on acoustic guitar pickups, it was do-it-yourself or nothing.  Freddie later had the foresight and ingenuity to help out all those out there who don't have the good fortune to travel with a live sound engineer. Putting some version of all that leveling and frequency tweaking in one small box is no small feat. He provides an extremely helpful turnkey solution. I'm more of an audiophile do-it-yourself-er. I like options, and sticking with separate pickups and processing while touring is better for me. Plus my heavy gigging wears out the pickups, so I get to use fresh ones if necessary without replacing the entire electronic situation. And, why has he never put dog-collar studs or spikes on that thing? Just kidding.

I know! It's coming, don't you worry!

Customization is his future!

Del: Absolutely. Speaking of tech toys: the last time I saw you in concert, I thought I saw some pedals in front of you on stage. Do you use any type of pedals and the like? If so, what do you use them for?

Jeff: All I've ever used was an octave pedal for one song in our repertoire - the Bill Withers cover "Use Me", in which I sing a bass line in between beats.  I'm a tenor with bass-envy.  I wanted the bass notes to be more impressive in the depth department.  But we've phased that song out gradually, and toward the end I didn't even carry the pedal, due to the fuss. That would have been the only effect pedal I've ever used. Many years ago, I went out on an audio fidelity limb and had an A/B switch pedal to use when I sang a voice part (words) in the middle of songs. But that ended fast too.

Del: That must have been what I saw. One last thing about VP. What's your take on the use of live looping by beatboxers like DubFX and Beardyman? It seems like we're in the middle of the technology age. More and more people are boldly going out on that audio fidelity limb you mentioned. These kids and their rock n roll!

Jeff: Our own a cappella gentleman Mr. Andrew Chaikin/Kid Beyond got that really started properly. It's all good, as long as it's not just regurgitated stuff over and over. As with anything, it needs a big spark of individuality to sustain it as an interesting thing, and a career. Looping is really just another side of that human music. My own preference is for as much as possible on the musical side, where the magic comes from the person and not the technology. The tech is only a gateway to making good stuff.

Del: I absolutely agree. So let's get down to business here. We've seen lots of changes with Rockapella in the last year or two. Members have come and gone. But it seems like you guys have really been repackaging your image and presentation. For example, on YouTube I saw a video of you guys performing "Tonight" live with a little teaser from backstage. The opening fade in was the first time I have seen you referred to as "The New Rockapella". Was that intentional - a signal to the world that things are changing in Rockapella land?

Jeff: Since John Brown joined us, we've been using "new", and adding more and more choreography and energy to the stage show, really working on fine-tuning (no pun intended) the live Rockapella experience. Live shows have always been any group's bread-and-butter, and we're no exception. Our touring is now better than ever and more global than ever as a result. With the addition of Steve Dorian and the creation of this album - our first full scale studio album since 2002 - things have and will continue to keep surprising people. Along with that has been a big increase in internet presence. Our fan club and management have been doing what all responsible marketers do now. The resources are out there. We've been a multimedia "indie" act for a very long time and it's only increasing. And now we're all living and working the ultimate indie era. Our first website was launched in 1994 when things were much...clunkier, so we've never been shy about using what was available. Now we do as much business over the net as anywhere else. God bless iTunes!

Del: iTunes has really opened up the floodgates for Rockapella and a cappella in general. Maybe Steve Jobs isn't such a bad guy after all. And you guys really do look great!

Jeff: Steve Jobs, whether you're Mac or PC, is the man. He does and means what he says, with a side of revolution sauce. Gotta admire that. You've gotta get clothes with a little shine on them, and make sure they fit properly. It makes all the difference. You look like you belong onstage.

Del: Fine tuning, indeed. Complete with sharp-looking suits, some slick choreography like you mentioned, and I think that even musically you guys seem to be exploring things musically that we haven't heard in the past. More adventurous, if you will.

Jeff: Musically, we're all lovers of top quality pop. And pop music is inherently familiar, comfortable, but should also...show some effort behind it!  We'd like to think we're expressing that side of pop and soul.

Del: You guys don't seem to have any problem finding new members either. And is it just me or is Orlando, FL a hotbed of talent for you guys? I know you saw George in Japan, but he did call Orlando home. John, George and Steve were all Disney performers.

Jeff: Disney is a hotbed of experience. You learn what it means to deliver quality with repetition. I think that's mostly what we've tapped into down there. We absolutely don't ignore outside talent, but the Disney veterans often bring the overall package and confidence to the table, and it's hard to ignore. As long as they can shed a bit of the kiddie stuff in the process!

Del: Well I for one like where you guys are going with the group. I think the fans are simply going to eat it up. Let's talk about the creative process a little. I'm very interested in what the process is like for when a new song is introduced to the group. Some groups use just sheet music. Some teach by rote. Some use just vocal multi-tracked learning tracks. So tell me, when Scott or whoever brings a new song to the group, how do you guys learn it? Do you guys learn specifically what is arranged or is it a more organic process, or both? How much of a difference is there between what was originally brought to the group and what we end up hearing?

Jeff: Well, Rockapella's founding father, Sean Altman, always did vocal learning tracks - your part split on one side and the rest on the other - and started promoting the idea in the a cappella community in the 1990s. I think if the arranger can deliver his intent on a recording - in terms of phrasing and timing, as well as notes, you get more out of that method. Not to mention the fact that you get to actually hear the live arrangement all at once, albeit in a raw form. That's the learning method of choice for Rockapella always. Long long ago, we'd sometimes get both a written and recorded version, but it's all one thing now. Overall, the demo is usually a bit slower and less exciting edition of the final - because it's one guy singing into a microphone. He can do his best, and it's very very helpful, but the 5 parts definitely take on a life of their own. The notes are all there, though.

Del: How long does it take you to get a song performance ready? In fact, how much and how often do you guys rehearse?

Jeff: After that, we study on our own, and run the song on the road, backstage and during sound check. It's up to each guy's individual professionalism to bring his best to the table, plus after a while you can kind of hear each other think. So we start running the learned song in the same room, and it starts to gel based on what we know of ourselves and each other...balancing and timing and feel. Then we often, relatively quickly, launch it during a show.

A song can be ready within a couple weeks or even less if necessary. No rules. We rehearse in Florida together when we have a lot of material to learn or run, such as when a new guy joins or we're about to go on our all-holiday-music tour. But generally we rehearse on the road only. It's up to everybody to bring their A-game, to be a trained and responsible musician. Along the way, things need fine-tuning, and choreography can now require a big mirrored room, but we're all here to do this, so it gets done. We once had to run the entire Christmas show re-boot from a hotel hallway. That was interesting.
Del: I'll bet that was fun for some lucky passers-by!

Jeff: Seriously. I think a few caught it on the way to the elevator. I'm sure there are worse things to overhear in a hotel.

Del: So, does Scott do all of the arranging and songwriting or do you guys mix it up a bit? He seems to have a signature style to his writing. It just seems like he is a strong creative influence on the music and the group.

Jeff: Scott and Sean Altman had been the dynamic duo for years, and after Sean left the group in 1997, Scott became the remaining principal arranger and kept us on our feet, eventually resulting in a sort of re-birth for the group with the album "Don't Tell Me You Do", which remains our one of our best sellers ever. It got us our first US record deal. So he deserves a lot of credit for keeping the fire burning, and re-focusing the group on a contemporary sound back then. There have been four studio and two live albums since then, and contributions from other members along the way. Now the new CD has 5 songs from other members. So we'll see what the future holds. No rules, just right...it's not just a steakhouse motto! And there I go again speaking with my stomach.

Del: We're all definitely excited to hear the new CD. It certainly has been a while. What can we expect to hear on this one? That's a great title, by the way. “Bang!” You guys seem to be trying to make a statement these days.

Jeff: Thanks! It's our first all-originals album in years. We started doing half covers a while ago, but once again we went for it, lots of original goodies! We've had lots of live touring time to think about things, to create. There's something for everyone, and plenty of it. 

To be honest, it's really refreshing to have a group release a CD of all original music. I wish more groups would do that. Do you think that is a trend we can expect to see not only with Rockapella, but from a cappella groups in general?

I think there's nowhere for a cappella to go but toward more originals. We've never shied away from it and it's gotten us on television over and over, on national radio airplay, etc. The collegiate a cappella group cover-fest doesn't work in the real world for very long. Straight No Chaser can do it for a while, but the only thing that keeps any group from being just another gimmick is original songs. It's well past time for contemporary vocal groups to stop being perceived as gimmicks, don't you agree? 
Del: Absolutely! I was thinking the same thing about Straight No Chaser while listening to their latest CD recently. The only way they are gonna stay relevant is to start doing original material. Once again, Rockapella is leading the rest of the a cappella world into the future.

Jeff: In shiny suits!

We’ve talked a lot about technology today. One thing that has happened in a cappella is the heavy use of production tools and tricks in the studio. AutoTune a-plenty. But you guys, while still using some of the technology available, still keep it pure for the most part. Being more of a purist. I really appreciate that and I don’t think I am alone. Is that deliberate?

Jeff: Well, anyone recording a clean studio album will use things the average Joe would call "tricks", and nobody's immune from even minor pitch correction, but we keep things pretty honest, and on this album we've shied away from too many extra notes beyond the "real" arrangements. We've always been fans of "ear candy" moments added to recordings, but never at the expense of showing off who we are underneath. You can actually hear our individual voices. On the other hand, it's definitely got a radio-ready studio sound, but no AutoTune yodeling, and definitely a level of honesty. I'd say it's riding the sweet hybrid line of slick and real. It's meat and potatoes, with a very special spicy sauce.

Del: There you go again with the food references.

Jeff: When I eventually have my own website, I'll have a food blog.

Del: By now I’m sure the fans' mouths are watering after reading about the new CD. So when CAN we get our hands on this highly-anticipated release?

Jeff: As far as I know, mid-September. There's a publicity push in August and early September, though. Radio and so forth.

Del: Awesome! [Well fans, there you have it, an inside look into the inner workings of Rockapella, some great insight from Jeff on a cappella and VP today and some great info on the long-awaited new CD.] Jeff, it sure was a pleasure to get to talk to you today. Any final thoughts for the fans before we go?

Jeff: Fans are what has kept contemporary a cappella thriving, and we've always had some of the greatest fans anywhere, with countless new ones every day. We look forward to entertaining you for years to come. See you out there!

Del: Thanks again, Jeff! If you wanna check out some teaser tracks from the new CD and learn more about Rockapella, you can go to their website at [www.rockapella.com].

About the author:
Del Coy studied voice, vocal arranging, live sound reinforcement and studio recording techniques in the Commercial Music program at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester, VA. While at Shenandoah he had the privilege of singing under the direction of Grammy Award Winner, Robert Shafer. He had the distinct honor of performing with the Washington Oratorio Society which performed the Verdi Requiem, Belshazzar’s Feast and Poulenc Gloria with the National Symphony Orchestra and soloists from the Metropolitan Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. He also studied voice and was a vocal arranger for the Jazz ensemble at Carnegie Mellon University. Del has over 15 years of professional and semi-professional experience in a cappella. His career has taken him all over the country including performing at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida. He toured with the (national touring group) Four Shadow and has subbed with Blue Jupiter. Del also performed with the vocal group METRO on board Celebrity Cruises in the Caribbean.

[photo by Ross Leung]