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Meet the Cherry Poppin' Daddies

By Shayla Thiel
Washingtonpost.com Staff
September 19, 1997

   


    Cherry Poppin' Daddies Cherry Poppin' Daddies. (Courtesy of Mojo Records)
With almost nine years and four albums behind them, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies might just be the most prolific unknown swing-and-ska band in the country. Although they have a large cult following among college radio aficionados and West Coast swing fans, the band has yet to enjoy the mainstream success of their contemporaries, who range from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Squirrel Nut Zippers. But Steve Perry, the guitarist and vocalist, said in a recent phone interview that he hopes the band's July release, "Zoot Suit Riot," breaks a few barriers.

Q:What do you think of the latest swing/lounge movement?
A:It seemed to me that swing is bigger on the West Coast than the East Coast, Squirrel Nut Zippers notwithstanding. They're kind of their own Louis Armstrong, Tin Pan Alley sort of style. It's totally helping us, though. I have some misgivings about the whole thing not because it's getting big but because when people first get into it, they learn to swing dance and buy the jump blues records and that's not what we're really about ... People are being really retro revisionist toward it right now, but in order for it to grow and become more modern they have to let the bands do more interesting things with it. A lot of these bands just play covers. I find that totally a straight jacket. If they don't let bands stretch out a little bit, it's going to die. Musicians won't want to play it because they're forced by traditions to do so. It's '97 for chrissake.

Q:What about the mainstream embracing of ska?
A:It's sort of the same with ska. I'm pro third-wave [funk-inflected] ska. Bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Fishbone, and I like Hep Cat. But I think I'm more spiritually aligned with the people who are trying to make it new, even if the traditional people sound better. We play swing and ska but swing is more interesting to me harmonically. Ska is interesting to me in a "pop" sort of way. I've been trying to change my palette some my natural tendency is to use a lot of blue notes, [but] I want to be able to appreciate a pop melody. It's like, if your house was brown and red, but you want something without all this muted tone. It's hard for you to all of a sudden paint your house yellow and blue. I'm now forcing myself to appreciate a primary triad, which is the same thing only it's like I'm trying to decorate myself. Swing uses more muted tones and dark tones, ska is sometimes so sugary sweet I hate it. The goal is to get them to fit together.

Q: What are you trying to do to take swing music to a new level?
A:We play faster and more rocking than swing. We still play swing over the top of it, but for instance, we don't have the horns play backup lines to the ovals, which is what traditional string bands do. It's a weird way of doing it. It's not exactly straight. And within our long sections, we use a lot of dissonant tones.

Q:In addition to the usual vocalist, guitarist, bassist and drummer, you have a horn section. What are the challenges of playing in such a large band?
A:The main challenge is keeping order because there are so many talented people in our group, but if everyone talks at the same time, it's dissonant. We have to assume a structure, a hierarchy which [is a notion that] often rubs Americans the wrong way. A lot of people need to realize orchestras have a conductor for a reason. That's the position I fill. It's not easy because you don't want to thwart someone's creativity, but you need to keep order.

Q:Even though you're more rooted in swing than ska, you have toured with Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish. Do you prefer to tour with ska groups?
A:For years we did, because that's the accepted formula, which is fine. I'd like to reach a different audience, too an audience that's less naturally receptive to what we do. We were hoping to tour with Primus for that very reason, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen now. I don't want to be big just because we're part of the scene. I feel like [the ska scene is] more of a fashion show right now and people aren't really listening anymore. It's good and bad, though. When a scene gets huge like ska, there's less pretentiousness. But when it just starts, it's hela-pretentious, and there's always a big fight between the people who have been in it for years and people who have been it for six months. This business is so much about people trying to find themselves. We all have a soul and you can hear it coming through the speakers in music, but people are not attuned to their ability to see, hear and feel things. They need to learn to tap into it.

Q: Who do you listen to in your spare time?
A:Before shows, I listen to tangos, classical music like Tchaikovsky and Beethoven and grandiose romantic music. I picture myself the diva before the show and listening to this over-the-top music and it seems to fill me. I'm not completely romantic, but I love to listen to that sort of music. It's sort of like psyching yourself up like an athlete.

Q:So, are you saying you're a diva?
A:I'm as insecure as anybody else is and I don't feel that comfortable being on stage. I have to let my insecurities go into this thing, this other character. We were coming toward New Orleans and there was this gospel station and the sense of the music was so overwhelming I thought I would explode or cry. Giving in to that, letting the white person inside you go away, and just going BLAH, that's the secret to doing a good show. You just let yourself go.

Q:The American radio iconoclast Jazzbo Collins, who hosted WNBC's "The Purple Grotto" in the 1950s, appears in your "Zoot Suit Riot" video. How did you find him and get him to agree to that?
A:Teal, his daughter, is a longtime friend of the band, and one day she just said, "Did you know my dad is Jazzbo Collins?" And we were so surprised. We met and stayed there with them in San Francisco and became good friends, It was really cool of him to do the video. He's not someone everyone knows, but the people who know who he is and what he's done are blown away. MTV hasn't picked it up for the buzz bin yet. We'd have to knock out the Dandy Warhols for that, you know.

Q:In what direction is the band going in the future?
A:We probably won't make a full tilt swing record. We'll probably mix it up a little more. [When we first signed with] Mojo [a part of Universal Records], we sat down together and decided we will follow our muse and be interested in pop and swing music and whatever. The label was cool with that. It's kind of a departure for us, really. We've been around for so long and done so many different things, we've had success in various genres, but we always play swing. It's just a matter of degree. That's been a problem because all the swing people have "Zoot Suit Riot," and then when they come to the show, we play all this ska and they hate it. We're trying to take it to different people and do a whole set, though. We don't necessarily want to be the beautiful people the guys in nice suits reeling in the '40s. That's just not us.


   
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