“We plan to be playing what we’re playing forever… “
When discerning listeners talk about the very best in ska, rocksteady, and reggae, one name consistently comes up. That’s Hepcat, a Los Angeles-based nine-piece that’s been at it for almost a decade. Frontman Greg Lee discovered ska music in junior high school, when his sister gave him a copy of Bob Marley’s Legend. “I thought it was something completely different, which it was,” Lee says. “Following that, I just kept looking for reggae, looking for something similar, and through the by and by, I happened upon ska and rocksteady. Then I found out there were bands that played ska, and people who went to go see ska. So we’d go to shows, me and my friends – who by that point, had gotten into it as well – and we’d look for ska, but we’d never quite find ‘ska.’ We always found bands playing the hybrid, like the English ska, which was cool, but it wasn’t what we identified with as ‘ska.’ So we decided to start a band, to make that music for ourselves and for our friends.”
Lee hooked up with vocalist/keyboardist Deston Berry in 1989, and Hepcat was born. Over the years, the group has grown to include co-frontman Alex Desert (who also has a career as an actor, in films like the cult classic Swingers, and on TV, where he’s currently a regular on the new Ted Danson sitcom, Becker), saxophonist Efren Santana, bassist Dave Fuentes, drummer Scott Abels, guitarist Aaron Owens, and trumpeter Kincaid Smith. Hepcat quickly earned a reputation as one of the best bands on the planet, with an inimitable, smooth, upbeat, timeless, and eminently danceable sound. Listening to their music is like having an ice-cold soda while lying on the beach on a blazing August afternoon — it hits the spot every time. Their three albums have earned accolades far and wide, the respect of their peers, and an enviable spot as one of the first bands on Epitaph’s new “ska and ’77-style punk” subsidiary, Hellcat Records.
I caught up with Greg Lee just before the final stop on their most recent tour (opening for Hellcat’s godfathers, Rancid), aboard Hepcat’s beautiful new tour bus. We talked about the band’s past, present, and future, and why Hepcat doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a “ska band”…
You’ve been quoted quite a few times as saying that you don’t want Hepcat to be considered a “ska band… “
There are so many “ska” bands in the genre, why are we all called “ska”? You know, there’s like 2-Tone influenced ska, there’s rock-influenced ska, there’s – well, I won’t say “rock influenced ska” or “2-Tone,” I’ll say “ska influenced by” – there’s ska influenced by funk, etc. We definitely don’t want to be identified by that, because a lot of those people in those types of bands kind of see it more or less as they’re following a trend. A lot of these bands have reformulated their format in order to be a “ska band.” So they look at it as not having a very long life, and if we were to look at it as that, we’d basically be saying that we don’t plan to be playing that long, but it’s just the opposite. We plan to be playing what we’re playing forever, or as long as we can come to that.
Do you feel that a lot of those “ska bands” are disappearing already, as some of the ska hype has died down over the last year?
Well, a lot of the bands, after they’ve made their one “ska album” that went big, are running out of material, because they really had no basis from which to start. You know, kudos to Reel Big Fish for making another album that sounds as good as the first one, but a lot of them can’t do it. They thought at first that ska seems like such an easy thing, but then once they start doing it, they realize that it’s hard to duplicate the sound.
Alex Desert seems to go back and forth between being with the band and taking off to pursue acting. How does that affect the chemistry with the band, and your relationship with him?
It’s like two different worlds. One show, with Alex, is the two lead singer show, and then the other show is a one lead singer show. They’re both unique in their own ways. I think the two lead singer show is unique because we do the steps and everything, but the one lead singer show is unique because the band only has one person to follow, therefore making it a lot tighter; a lot fresher coming into each song.
Does the situation cause a lot of tension among the band, where you don’t know if he’s going to get an acting gig and be out again?
Only until we put ourselves back together and figure out how to do it the other way. We’ve done it, what, three times now? It causes confusion, because you get used to a set way, and that’s just the way it is. The guys get used to following two people, and when we have to switch over, it just frustrates all of us, until we get it down. Right now we’re all comfortable with our position.
Another unpredictable issue for you guys has been who is releasing your music; each of your albums has been on a different label (Out of Nowhere on Moon Ska, Scientific on BYO, and the latest, Right On Time, with Hellcat). Why have you skipped around so much?
We like Hellcat. Hellcat offered us… basically, the other labels wanted us to put out albums for the sake of the “ska” thing, and that’s cool for what they want to do — make money, whatever, that’s cool — but Hellcat more or less invited us to live in an atmosphere that we create, which allows for us to do what we do as best as we can. When Brett Gurewitz (Epitaph label head and Hellcat partner) and Tim Armstrong (Rancid frontman and Hellcat’s top dog) approached me the first time, the main thing that got me into them is that Brett said “I want you guys to be exactly how you are. I don’t ever want to see you guys change, and if you change, it will be all for the good, because I want you guys to do it all on your own. I want to offer you the environment to be able to do this forever, if not for anything else but for me to see you play.” That really impressed me, and that’s why we went to Hellcat.
Moon and BYO – it’s more or less growing, you know? You grow up, and you grow out of clothes, and you’ve got to get rid of them and get new clothes. If they no longer work for you, if you’ve got a hole in your crotch, you’re not going to walk around with your wee-wee hanging out.
Recently, according to Moon, you’ve taken back Out Of Nowhere…
No, the contract ran out. We didn’t take it back. Our album isn’t discontinued. I guess the Moon people were telling a lot of kids that the album would no longer be sold, in order to increase their own sales — which is cool, I guess anybody would have done that — but for the kids’ sake, for us to let them know, it’s not like that. We’re taking our album back, we’re going to remaster it, it’s going to be better than it was before, we’re probably going to put a bonus track on it, and re-release it, maybe on Hellcat, maybe on Fat Mike’s (from NOFX) label, but we’re not sure yet what’s going to happen.
So there’s not a personal conflict with Moon, then?
Why would there be? We don’t know anybody there, as opposed to knowing everybody at Epitaph and Hellcat. [The people at Hellcat are] like our buddies. They come out to almost every show, and they root us on, and they’re happy to see us playing, and happy to see us healthy – they genuinely worry when we feel bad. Whereas Moon, I met the guy from Moon, Bucket (Moon president and Toasters frontman Rob Hingley), maybe once. He talked to me really coldly, a “record label guy to band guy” kind of conversation, and that wasn’t the environment this band needs to keep going. As you’ve seen, we’re a different band from all the other bands. We require a certain environment to survive, and [Hellcat has] given it to us, i.e. [gesturing around us] wood-paneled bus.
What were your thoughts about working with ex-Dexy’s Midnight Runners/General Public drummer and Dance Hall Crashers/Specials producer Stoker on Right On Time?
[sings] “Come on Eileen… ” [laughs]. It was a trip, because he’s such a fast-talking English bloke. He’s got some really cool ideas, and he had some really cool insight as to English-type dub, like the Coventry stuff, and what the Specials did in the latter years, and even what Mad Professor and those type of dub professors were doing. The whole thing about Hepcat is we’re trying to stay on a track of doing stuff in the way we like to have it done, and he edged us that much closer to it.
You recorded “Open Season… is Closed,” an answer song to the Stubborn All-Stars’ “Open Season,” which has since been answered back by Skinnerbox’s “Hepcat Season.” What’s been your reaction to all the attendant hoopla, and to rumors that it’s caused a real enmity between Hepcat and King Django and the so-called “NYC Ska Mob”?
There’s actual talk of doing some recording with Django. There was never any rivalry or anything like that. We live on the West Coast, they live on the East Coast; it was our way of communicating. It got thrown all out of context, everybody wanted to see something crazy happening — which is cool, I can’t blame them, I probably would have done the same thing — but that’s not really what it was. It was all about friends communicating, and a lot of people don’t understand that kind of communication, so they interpret it as being aggressive or violent, or whatever.
I interviewed Django right as “Open Season… is Closed” was coming out, and he was really happy to hear that you guys had done it.
There’ll be more, too. There’s more on the way. Dr. Ring Ding is doing one, I heard the Slackers might even be doing one, and there’s a couple of bands around the country I heard are putting out their own “season opening or closing” songs. It’s cool. You know, in America, we talk about “seasons,” in Jamaica they talk about “festivals.” The same thing happens in Jamaica but they’re called “festival” songs. What they do is all these different bands put out festival songs, and there’s a panel that [chooses] a festival song for the year. The winners have been like Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff… they’ve all done festival songs. Prince Buster did one. So we’re kind of adding ourselves to that list, but on the American side of it.
Last issue we had an interview with Freddy Reiter from the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble, and he talked a lot about your collaboration on the cover of Toots & the Maytals’ “John & James,” which appeared on NYSJE’s first album. Did you have any specific thoughts about it?
It was a quick recording. It was fun, it was done, and that was it. I like those guys a lot. I really didn’t know what they were going to do with it, to tell you the truth. When we got done, we were like “all right, yeah, see ya later,” and then it came out on their record.
You guys have done a lot of collaborations over the years, with artists as diverse as Venice Shoreline Chris, the Royal Crown Revue, Rancid, and the Loved Ones. Did you have any specific thoughts on any of them?
You know, that’s what we’re here for. Everybody goes out and does their recording with other people in order to stretch themselves out, and also feel what other people are doing and how they’re doing it. It’ll just continue that way, as more and more artists continue to do music, everybody will collaborate with other artists. It’s just like anything else — session time, I guess. It’s more of getting together with friends and recording. I guess in a couple of years I’ll really look at it as “wow, we all collaborated, that’s really cool,” but right now, I’m just having fun. We’re all just having a good time.
You’ve also toured with and opened for a wide variety of musicians, everyone from Desmond Dekker to Ben Harper to, on this tour, Rancid. Do you have any particular favorites, or were any especially memorable?
See, it’s just what I was just saying. It’s not about having a favorite, it’s not about seeing anybody on any pedestal, including ourselves. It’s about perseverance, and doing this stuff with all these musicians and showing everybody that ska doesn’t have to be restricted to that “genre.” It doesn’t have to be bastardized to be beautiful. That’s what we’re doing. We’re playing with as many different types of bands and musicians as we can, and proving ourselves. We’re paying dues, like we’ve been doing, we’ve just upped the game a little bit. I heard word that our next tour might be with the Dave Matthews Band [knocks wood], that would be another kind of thing. It sucks, too, because I know from being a kid into ska that a lot of kids are going to look at that as a way of backing ourselves out of the ska world, but that’s not at all what we’re doing. We’re actually trying to expand it — not by paining the music, by keeping it as pure as we can, whilst playing with popular artists and musicians.
What else should we look for from Hepcat in the future?
Keep your ear out for our next album, ’cause it’s going to be good. We’re going to start trying to record as soon as we get a second off the road to get to work. By then, we’ll have plenty of material – we’ve actually got a lot in the works right now.
Will Alex be on the album?
That remains to be seen, but I think he will. I won’t say yes, but I’m pretty sure he will. He’ll have to answer that himself.