Raise the roof

The House Jacks is not your mother’s a capella rock band

The House Jacks play Rollin’ On the River on Friday, July 16 at 6:30 p.m. Wingfield Park. Opening act is Jonie Blinman.

Wingfield Park

300 W. First St.
Reno, NV 89501

Before The House Jacks had a name, when they were just five East Coast college grads who sang a cappella with very little experience and even less “cred,” they did what five recent college grads might do to select a band name: They methodically made a list of 1,500 possibilities.

“Eventually we whittled that down to 500, then to 50, then 10 … but The House Jacks had the advantage of both being in the Yellow Pages under ‘heavy equipment rentals,’ and not taken,” laughs Austin Willacy, one of the five Jacks who is a performer, a songwriter and the band’s primary booker. “If you want to move your house off its foundation, you hire a house jack, so that was kind of a nice musical metaphor.”

While a cappella generally inspires warm and fuzzy feelings with its smooth tones and cheery tunes, The House Jacks elevate a cappella to new heights. Their sound, which is as far removed from “seersucker and straw hats” as a cappella can be, is inspired by classic and contemporary rock ’n’ roll and R&B—Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and even Boys II Men.

“Everybody in the band plays an instrument,” says Willacy. “We write music on our instruments, then arrange the music specifically to be performed with our five voices. In most a cappella groups, if not all, they’ll start with a bass then layer over it. The arrangement is vocally based. So it gives us the opportunity to challenge ourselves by creating arrangements that are textured with a very high spectrum of sound.”

And he does mean the whole spectrum. For example, their 2006 live album, Get Down Mr. President!!, features Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” and their 2009 compilation album Good Things offers Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” While they are definitely different from the originals, they also aren’t just those songs minus the music. In many cases, it’s hard to tell that no actual instruments were used. There’s percussion, bass, guitar … it’s not just the sound of singing. It’s music.

It’s not all covers, either. While The House Jacks devote album space to reproducing favorites, they’re all talented songwriters who compose plenty of original music. In fact, all are involved in other musical projects in addition to The House Jacks; Willacy, for example, is a singer-songwriter whose album American Pi has earned much acclaim.

The five members—Willacy, Deke Sharon, Jake Moulton, Troy Horne and Roopak Ahuja—started performing together in college in the early ’90s.

“It’s very common for people in college a cappella groups to tour around and perform at other schools,” says Willacy. “Deke went to Tufts, I went to Dartmouth, we had a guy from Brown and two from UNC Chapel Hill. We just kept bumping into each other. It was Deke’s idea to get different-sounding voices together to give us more diversity for multiple lead vocalists, representing different styles and genres of music effectively.”

A cappella groups tend to be formed by similar sounding voices—for instance, everyone does beat box, or ballads. Nobody at the time was doing what Deke Sharon proposed. “When he pitched us the idea, we were all like, ‘Cool, I didn’t really want to go get a job anyway,’” says Willacy.

The five men converged in San Francisco, where they pursued their goal in earnest while each worked a temporary, non-career-oriented job that would be easy to quit when their break came. It didn’t take long. A performance on Fisherman’s Wharf got them noticed by an agent, who immediately wanted to represent them. That led to studio contracts; international and domestic tours, during which they got to open for such performers as Crosby, Stills and Nash, James Brown, and Ray Charles. It also led to six studio albums, a live album and a greatest hits compilation, and, most recently, the opportunity to record all the music used in NBC’s reality show, The Sing-Off. Not to mention their July 16 stop in Reno.

Still, even though their careers have really blown up, part of what makes their shows great, Willacy says, is that small-scale intimacy that is a trademark of a cappella. The House Jacks even take requests, allowing the audience to participate in the creation of the show.

“That transparency is what’s great,” he says. “There’s literally nothing between us and the audience except the microphone, so it’s a very relatable genre. There are no tricks. What you see is exactly what you get. So people of all ages, with all different musical tastes, can get into it.”