Fire in the ska
Musical groups, especially those here in Reno, don’t tend to last very long. Bands come together in a rush of excitement, build a bit of momentum, then quickly flounder when the band members get sick of each other or somebody moves away or whatever. Two years is a generous life expectancy for most bands, which makes the longevity of the local ska institution Keyser Soze remarkable.
“It’s been 12, 13 years,” says vocalist and saxophonist Jammal Tarkington. “We started in ’97 or ’98.”
When the group began, The Usual Suspects was still a relatively new movie. “Keyser Soze” is a character in that ’95 movie, a trickster devil. Over its lifespan, the band has gone through myriad lineup changes, though the core of Tarkington and trombonist-vocalist Rodney Teague has remained solid. The current, eight-person lineup has been in place for nearly two years and seems definitive.
“The current configuration is huge,” says Tarkington. In addition to Tarkington and Teague, the group includes Dan Weiss on percussion, Kevin Lum on keyboards, Jon Hall on drums, Ryan Hall on guitar, Ruben Garcia on trumpet, and Mike Mayhall on bass. It’s an impressive gathering of some of the area’s best musicians. Members of Keyser Soze also currently play in the jazz-rock band Frendo, the hip-hop group Who Cares?, the indie folk band My Flag is on Fire, the progressive rock band Cranium, and maybe half a dozen other bands and jazz combos.
The current lineup is capable of holding down thick, syncopated dance grooves or branching out into open-ended, near-psychedelic dub improvisations. The fact that so many of the musicians have jazz backgrounds makes for a musically flexible group that sounds latex-tight even when improvising.
“It was more ska-punk at first,” says Tarkington, of the group’s early days, “which was partly the scene at the time—and that’s not to say that the people in this group can’t play punk.”
The group has evolved away from the “third wave” ska-punk that was all the rage in the late ’90s into a sound that draws more directly from the earlier ska and rocksteady masters like The Skatalites and Toots & the Maytals. Those groups were partially inspired by jazz and ’60s soul music, like The Four Tops and The Impressions, and those influences can also be heard in Keyser Soze.
“I’m into the more traditional sound,” says Ryan Hall. “It can be a challenge to make it sound authentic.”
The band members agree that playing authentic old-school ska requires a certain deft touch that’s difficult to fake (unlike a lot of the ska-punk bands, who sound like poseurs). It’s not necessarily about technique or chops, but rather an ineffable ability to sustain a groove.
“If you can’t pull it off, you stick out like a sore thumb,” says Tarkington.
The group’s third album, But Not For You, drops Saturday, April 23, with a record release party at John Ascuaga’s Nugget. The album was produced by Teague and local recording engineer and vintage microphone collector David Hauser. It was mixed, with dubbed-out enthusiasm, by Aaron Poland of the Arizona-based ska band Warsaw.
But Not For You will also soon come out in Europe, where the band members hope to tour soon. And the group is already almost ready to record its next album, though the members want to road-test their new songs.
“It’s like in stand-up comedy,” says Mayhall. “The comedians will go around from club to club and do their jokes, and they’ll refine what works and what doesn’t.”
A comedian knows if his jokes work by whether or not people laugh. How do the members of Keyser Soze know if the songs are working?
“It goes off what we like, and the energy we get from it,” says Tarkington. “But other people, in the audience, pick up on our energy. There are some songs that just energize and grab people.”