Skavoovie and the Epitones
“See, what’cha get yourself, is you get yourself a monkey, right? Then you paint it blue. Then you cut its arms off, and you put wings on that shit. Then you got yourself a cow-bird. See? Cow-bird. You know what a cow-bird is? No? What you’ve gotta do is you gotta go down to Miami, right? Gotta talk to the gun-runners, and the drug dealers.. they deal in drugs, they deal in guns, and they deal in cow-birds. You get like 250, 300 dollars a pop. They bring that shit up to New York City, then they re-sell that shit for five, six, eight hundred dollars a pop. You got cow-birds. You got a cow-bird market happening all over New York City. Then that shit gets out to Los Angeles and forget about it. You get like, two, three thousand dollars for a cow-bird. But see, then they start getting hard to find. Because you don’t find too many monkeys that are painted blue, right? You know that shit gets crazy when it gets up to Canada. Because when that shit gets up to Canada, then it’s an epidemic.”
As soon as I turn the recorder on to start the interview, then-guitarist Dan Neely (who left the band to attend grad school, playing his last show at Clark University on August 28th ), grabs the tape recorder and just starts talking about cow-birds. After he’s finished and we’re all done laughing, I try to start the interview again. Not more than two words come out of my mouth, when Dan grabs the recorder from me again.
“Have you ever seen a grown man naked? Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? I haven’t been out of that bus in two days.”
This is going to be an interesting interview.
Maybe I’ll back up a bit. Welcome to the world of Skavoovie and the Epitones. If you were to pick up either of their two records (or, three, if you count Super Ripe, a spiced up version of their latest album Ripe for release in Japan), you’d probably think the men behind the music were a bunch of studio musicians with enough energy to keep them moving “over the hump” that you only hear about in semi-clever Hallmark cards. With such amazing musicianship and ability to bring the worlds of ska and jazz together so brilliantly, finding out that the band is comprised of ten college students is quite a surprise all unto itself. Their live shows are nothing short of spectacular either, bringing with them the energy to make the whole place dance and the talent to make every song and every solo more impressive than the next. I asked if they’ve ever blanked on a solo, and Dan answered…
Happens every night.
(To Dan) You just try to play through it? Do you ever just freeze?
Dan: It happened to me tonight. No, we never freeze. Sometimes they come out good, sometimes they come out crappy. But they always come out.
I tried to go see the band on New Years Eve when they played at Ft. Lauderdale’s Squeeze. It was an 18 and over show (which wasn’t shared on the flyer), and I wasn’t 18. I never got in. We actually ended up spending New Years at IHOP, which is a whole other story unto itself.
Dan: All ages shows are always the best. It should always be all-ages. Every single time. There should never be a reason for a 21 and over show.
Trumpet player Ben Lewis: Yea. 21 and over shows are really bad.
Dan: Unless you’ve got porno on stage.
Have you ever refused to play a show because of the age restriction?
Dan: Well, if someone tells us we can play a 21 and over show or an all ages show, we’ll play the all ages show. We sell more merchandise at all-ages shows. 21 and over people don’t buy merchandise. They’re generally boring. They just drink. We don’t sell drinks. We sell hot dogs.
Apparently, Skavoovie does more than make great music… they sell unsanitary meat, too. Nobody ever told me of this, or it would have been the first thing on my question list. But, if you look closely, some of the members of the band will be sporting pins that say “Banned in 49 states: Hot dogs.” What’s the deal?
Roadie Matt Anderson: The real thing came from… Adam [the other roadie, who was currently asleep on the floor] bought a package of hotdogs that was banned in California. There was some kind of meat that was illegal to sell in California. And I couldn’t believe he bought it. And then I couldn’t believe he ate it. So we’re just trying to capture the feeling I had that day. Like, it’s just sickening. It says not to eat this, and you’re eating it. That’s what that’s all about.
Have you sold any hot dogs?
Matt: We actually have sold hot dogs. Quite a bit. At the merch table. Most clubs won’t allow it, because they don’t have permits for that stuff, and they can be closed down forever. So they get really mad when we do. So we’ll sell them secretly out of some back room or under the table. It’s like a serious approach. It’s almost like a con. It’s like, `Are you hungry? You sure look hungry! Come with me, I can take care of you.’ But the places where we can actually set it up, it’s usually a great success. It was the worst idea we ever had.
Ben Lewis: But at the same time, it was also the best.
Matt: It’s the most surreal event. For Adam it’s just some crazy fuckin’ thing, but for me it’s like performance art, almost. It’s like testing society. And they love it.
Let me briefly explain where we are. Lead vocalist Ansis Purins announced during their show at Fu-Bar in Ft. Lauderdale that the band was looking for a place to stay. My friend Sara volunteered her house, and so an hour later there were twelve guys (ten band members and two roadies) and a school bus arriving to surprise Sara’s dad, who was fast asleep. Wait… a school bus?
Dan: It’s a 1984 International school bus, with I think a carpenter body with a TT466 engine.
Ben Lewis: Isn’t it a bluebird body?
Dan: No, it’s not a bluebird body. I went through a number of bus dealers to find the right bus. I went to the international motor sales place, and they suggested the kind of engine to get, so I tracked down a bus with that particular engine. We got a deal, we got it for 4,500 bucks, and it had like 200,000 miles on it. And right now it’s pretty high up. We just got it fixed, and we got ripped off by the International dealer in Austin, TX. We’re pissed.
When there are twelve guys and a whole ton of equipment, the school bus really is the only way to go. Of course, it only goes 55 miles per hour, emits some kind of awful-smelling gas (which I got plenty of as I followed the bus to Sara’s house), and doesn’t have air conditioning. But hey, not everything’s perfect.
Have there ever been shows where the entire band didn’t fit on stage?
Dan: Yes, actually, in Little Rock Arkansas. We played in this Social Club, Jimmy’s Billiards. There were mostly pool tables. The stage was like, the step going out the back door. So we could fit the drums on it.
Ben Lewis: Pool cues kept going up Dan’s nostril.
Dan: That’s right. Rob and I stood in front of the drums, Eugene stood off to the right, and the horns were right in front of us. Like, there was no room. We were on the floor. We had to move tables. We made friends that day.
So after a few hours of sitting around talking, I figured I might as well start this interview that was set up before Sara brought her house into it. Picking 3 AM to interview these guys probably wasn’t the smartest of ideas on my part, which I guess does explain the incoherence of the interview and, consequently, the incoherence of this article.
Speaking of being incoherent, I was told by various people to mention the following three things: Pol Parsley the Thai Elvis, WCW for Nintendo 64, and Star Wars. I wasn’t really sure why I was asking, so I just mentioned the words and (no surprise) Dan grabbed the recorder.
Dan: Oh my god. Pol Parsley, we saw him last night. He was so cool. Then WCW vs. N.W.O. became like, the rage of Skavoovie on the N64. I have N64, Ansis has N64. We both bought the game on the same day. We have two controllers each, so we have four player wrestling, like battle-royal matches. Like, Skavoovie matches. We bet on it. It’s amazing.
It would be safe the assume the guys in Skavoovie were wrestling fans. Right?
Dan: Well, I don’t really like wrestling. But I like the game
Matt: Adam, the man with the magic, the roadie, worked for the WWF. Ok, here’s the inside tip on wrestling. This is what happens. Adam told me. When there’s a young wrestler and he’s scared to cut himself with the razor, you know, when he gets real beat, and you want a good show with a lot of blood, and the young wrestler thinks “Well, I don’t know if I want to cut myself with the razor.” He just cant’ do it, because.. you know.. have you ever cut yourself with a razor on purpose?
[I shake my head “no”.]
Matt: Most people haven’t.
Dan: It hurts, and it bleeds.
Matt: So, the referee won’t even warn you. When you go down, he’ll go over to you and he’ll be like “Are you okay?” like this, and then they’ll snip you right above the fuckin’ eyebrow.
Ben Lewis: You think they’ve gotta pay the referees to cut them?
Matt: Oh yea. Well, they’re trained professionals. They know what they’re doing. But you know, if a young kid is supposed to cut himself and doesn’t, then the referee will cut him for you
So maybe Matt’s a wrestling fan?
Matt: I used to hate wresting. I got really pissed when I found out that wrestling was fake. But after spending all my time with Adam, and then I saw a thing on A&E about how wresting has been fake since around the time the civil war ended. It was like a circus act. It’s always been more about show than about beating the crap out of someone. And personally, I wouldn’t want to watch a show about some dude getting his ass kicked. That’s all I have to say about that.
And then there was Star Wars.
Dan: That’s my bag. What do you want to know?
I’ll tell you a risky thing about interviewing: asking a question, but not really knowing why. That, or asking a question that will probably be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” but hopefully will spawn some insane story. For instance, I asked if people commonly ask which band member is actually “Skavoovie” and my answer was “yes.” But for this, all it took was me asking “Is Star Wars a band thing?” to get just that…
Dan: No, it’s really just me and Ansis.
Ben: No, Dan, I like Star Wars.
Dan: Well, everybody likes Star Wars. But me and Ansis LIKE Star Wars. We get the figures, and we talk about the prequels, because that’s the big deal now.
Tenor Saxophonist Ben Jaffe: I saved all my weapons from when I was little.
Dan: I go on the Internet and I go nuts with the prequels. Find out who’s in what, who’s doin’ what, what it’s about. On all night drives, I like to listen to Star Wars books on tape. Because nobody will stay up with me, and they keep me company.
Ben Lewis: [imitating book] Han calls to Chewy. “Hey, Chewy!”
Dan: [Chewbacca impression] BWAAAWWWWW!! They don’t get the right voices. Like, Harrison Ford isn’t on tape. I got the trilogy box set when it came out. You know how you can get the letterbox edition? I watched Empire every day last semester.
Skavoovie recently made a video for “Blood Red Sky” and I managed to see a broken-up version of it online. The basic concept is that Ansis is driving this bus around, and he keeps looking out the window and seeing bizarre people…
Dan: It took two days. It was really really cold. It was budget in our neighborhood.
Ben Lewis: Ansis doesn’t really have a driver’s license.
Dan: Yea, he was driving and he doesn’t have a license.
Ben Lewis: It was in a parking lot.
Dan: It was in the old shuttle-bus.
Was it ever aired?
Dan: It was on Indie Outing for like 10 seconds. With Jeneanne Garafolo, who we saw in Austin at South by Southwest, and I stalked her all night. It was great. I didn’t talk to her either, which was the coolest part.
Did you see it when it was on?
Ben Lewis: Yes I did.
Dan: I did not. Could you see everybody?
Ben Lewis: Yea, I could see everybody, yea. But they didn’t show the whole thing though, man.
Dan: But, like, my face was on MTV for a split second?
Ben Lewis: Sure. [speaks really loudly into recorder] Dan Neely’s face was on MTV.
Throughout the video, this bright red strange looking devil is running around the bus attacking people.
Ben Lewis: This kid… Scott Roy. He goes to college with me. See, here’s the thing… ever since I met Scott freshman year, I’ve really had the urge to paint him red. To shave his head and paint him red. The video was just a vehicle for that. In truth, the video was just a vehicle for us to paint Scott red and put him in a big red tuxedo. We actually, following the filming of the video, we went into a Christie’s in downtown Boston and absolutely got no reaction from the guy behind the counter who saw a bright person.
Ben Jaffe: The funny thing was that he had a gig that night.
Ben Lewis: Oh yea. And he couldn’t wash the paint off his head. He plays alto sax. He’s actually subbed for us. He also plays piano. And bass. He’s quite a musical.
If you look in the liner notes of Ripe, you’ll notice that “Wildfire” was originally written for a wedding. With a band talented enough to actually produce five hours of quality music, I couldn’t help but wonder if Skavoovie had started out as a house band of sorts.
Dan: Actually, we’ve done a couple weddings. We’re doing one at the end of the month. Our old roadie is getting married, so he’s asked us to play his wedding. Every once in a while someone will give us, like, $100,000 to play a wedding. Not really a $100,000, but they give us a lot of money and we’re like.. well, umm.. is this going to be a fun wedding?
Ben Lewis: But that’s not the case with Sam.
Dan: Yea, Sam’s just a friend. I don’t think we’re even gonna get paid for that.
Ben Lewis: I hope we get food, though.
Dan: Oh, we’ll get food.
Ben Lewis: We’re really plugging this wedding
Robert Jost [bassist]: If you want to come by, it’s in Vermont. I think. Ben Herst, our drummer, had a teacher from his old high school that was getting married, and she hired us for her wedding even though she didn’t know Ben too well. So Ben talked to me and said “Rob, we don’t have enough material for five hours of playing. We need to get together like five hours of covers and things like that. So “Wildfire” was a tune I wrote in 15 minutes to provide material for the wedding.
Matt: Proving once again that I’m not gay.
Rob: That I’m not gay?
Matt: No, the wedding.
Rob: That she, the teacher?
Rob: That’s why I wrote the tune. How’d you know?
How are the songs for Skavoovie written?
Dan: A lot of different ways. For example, Ben Jaffe will bring in a melody, and everyone else will harmonize it and they’ll arrange the horns. Let’s say like, with Joe’s new tune. He and Jesse wrote a tune, and they just sat home together and wrote up charts. Ben Lewis wrote a tune with our drummer Ben Herston. So, Ben Herston wrote the lyrics and Ben Lewis wrote the charts, and came in and had them printed out. So sometimes it’ll be a group effort, and sometimes it’ll be an individual effort. More often than not, it’s a group effort.
If you go to your local comic book store, there’s a chance you’ll find a comic book called “Catfish Funnies” sitting around. If you look closely, you’ll recognize the artwork as looking strikingly familiar to the promotional Skavoovie posters (namely, the one with the ska band in the guy’s over-heated car), many of the stickers featuring the bird-looking creature, and some old shirts. Who is this mystical artist?
Ben Lewis: That would be Ansis
Dan: Have you read it?
Ben Lewis: Yea.
Dan: How funny is it?
Matt: Is that the published or unpublished one?
Ben Lewis: He’s done all kinds of comics
Dan: There’s the lunch thing, right?
Ben Lewis: Lunch crunchies?
Dan: Lunch munchies?
Ben Lewis: Rug munchies?
Dan: Yea, he’s sold like three or four comic books.
Ben Lewis: Ansis has had great comic success, you know, for a freelance imager and cartoonist.
Dan: Skavoovie’s really his side job.
Ben Lewis: He actually pays for everything himself and publishes his own comic books and all. We’ll go to cities and stuff and find his comic books in comic books stores and stuff, and we’re like “Hey, that’s Ansis.”
Dan: He doesn’t get as excited about it as we do.
Ben Lewis: He also does a lot of record covers, and fliers, and advertisements, and shirts.
Dan: And he’s a male dancer.
So what’s next for Skavoovie and the Epitones? After filling the vacant guitarist position (which is supposedly in the meantime is being filled by a member from the Skalars), recording for a new album should start in October. They’re already playing a few of the songs from the upcoming albums at shows, including “Texas Size” and a reaction to the seemingly endless spread of Starbucks coffee shops in the form of a song called “I Hate Coffee.” (“You can take your stars, and you can take your bucks. And shove `em up your ass, cuz coffee sucks.”) As well, Skavoovie’s now a “full-time band.”
Ben Lewis: Everyone except for me is dropping out.
Dan: We’re not dropping out.
Ben Lewis: Well, but you’re taking time off.
Dan: It’s kind of like the five year plan.
Ben Lewis: And who else? Eugene and Jesse have graduated. Everyone else has more time. More time to do. At least a year.. Most of us have a year and a half left of school to do. But I, for one, plan on doing it.
I previously mentioned the existence of Super Ripe, which has all the songs on Ripe, an unreleased track called “Riversion,” and then some re-done versions of tracks from their first album, Fat Footin’. With such a specialized marketing tool for Japan, had that ever been followed up with a trip to Japan?
Ben Jaffe: No. We’d love to, though.
Dan: It was Moon’s idea. They’re into ska. Rude Bones
Ben Lewis: Rude Bones!
Dan: They’re this Japanese ska band called Rude Bones, they showed up at the Wetlands in New York and they’re like “Where’s Django? Where’s Django?” He didn’t show up, so I went up to him and I was like “Jeff, those guys from Rude Bones were all askin’ for you” and he was like “Oh, fuck! I forgot to show up! Those guys are so awesome!” I guess they toured with them and had a good time, and taught them how to like, hop the subways and stuff.
Ben Lewis: Are those the guys that freaked out when they saw the Japanese wrestlers and shit?
Dan: Yep. Those are also the guys that freaked out when they saw our stickers. Of Chucky.
Dan: No, the one on our patch. Of the bird.
Ben Jaffe: It’s this Japanese thing…
Ben Lewis: We put the bird in the sticker because it was this silly sticker that you could make that was still cool.
And with that, the tape actually ran out. Usually I’m lucky if I get half-way through the tape, but these guys managed to talk so much that I ended up running out of tape and still had questions I wanted to get through. Yet, with this much it’s still pretty easy to get an idea of the guys that make up this amazing organized cornucopia of a musicianship. They’re not too serious, they’ll sell you hot dogs, and if you give them enough money, they’ll play your wedding. Really, what more could you want from a band?