Keyser Soze’s Jammal Tarkington poses in front of the Cologne cathedral in Cologne, Germany, one of the spots the band visited on their first European tour.
Keyser Soze got down to business all over Europe, including in Italy, above, and Germany.
Reno ska institution Keyser Soze conquered Europe
If you live in Reno, you've probably heard of Keyser Soze.
If you haven’t seen them live, there’s a good chance you’ve stood in front of one of their fliers on a telephone pole trying to figure out how to pronounce their name (ky-zer soh-zay).
“We’ve been around since ’98,” said vocalist and saxophone player Jammal Tarkington on the patio of a downtown bar.
That 15 years makes them one of Reno’s most established bands.
For those unfamiliar with them, Keyser Soze is a ska band with strong hip hop and soul undercurrents. They’re known for their catchy, horn-laden songs, seasoned by many of the members’ background in jazz groups.
Despite the nearly 15 years under their belts, Tarkington said it was a slow beginning—mostly because they went through several drummers in the first six or seven years.
After they locked down a solid drummer, they really took off.
They’ve since spent a lot of time playing both local shows and touring the U.S.
But this May, they branched out. Keyser Soze toured Europe for the first time.
The band members said the shows were great. Vocalist and trombone player Rodney Teague said the band was regularly playing in front of crowds between 100 and 200 people. And, he added, even the smaller crowds were great.
They played in Lodz, Poland, to a small but enthusiastic crowd that was overwhelmingly supportive. The crowd not only danced during the show, but bought T-shirts and, more importantly, hung out afterward.
“That’s what it’s all about, making connections with people,” said Tarkington said, citing another night when the band hit it off with an Italian promoter. “He set us up with a show in Vienna. It’s incredible to play in a city with such musical history. And so when he told me he wanted to go surfing in California, I told him I’d take a few days off and bring him down.”
To Tarkington, making friends with fans and promoters also reminded him of the parallels between cities half way around the world.
“What the kids were doing in Poland was a lot like what kids are doing here. We have a friend out there who reminds me a lot of my friends here at the Reno Bike Project or the Holland Project … A bunch of kids just trying to get involved in their own scene and it’s cool to see them doing the same things.”A band abroad
In short, Tarkington said the tour was going great.
“We were riding it. Having the times of our lives over there.”
But it wasn’t all good.
When the band returned to Reno, they only had homemade versions of their new CD with “Keyser Soze, The Remedy” written in Sharpee.
“Sorry,” he explained, “We don’t have any of the hard copies anymore.”
The band was robbed in Kosice, Slovakia.
“It was super late at night. Between like 4 and 6 a.m. … somebody woke me up and was like, ’Man, there’s a hole broken in your van window.’”
Somebody had stolen all of their merchandise.
This was a big blow, considering the band’s large dependence on merchandise sales for gas money. It was toward the end of tour, so they were able to keep going without anything to sell.
But not only merch was taken—the thief had also grabbed Tarkington’s personal record collection, which he was carrying on the road with him. As DJ Stax of Wax, he spins records, sometimes doing so between sets at Keyser Soze gigs.
“It was such a bummer,” he says. “A lot of those records I had spent 10 years looking for, and had just found them.”
Tarkington said the robbery weighed him down later on tour.
But considering how positively the traveling was going otherwise, he’d try to sulk in private. He didn’t want to bring down the energy of the rest of the band.
Despite the theft, though, Tarkington considers the band as refreshed after such a successful tour abroad. They are releasing a new album, The Remedy, in July at the Harrah’s outdoor stage in downtown.
In addition to the official CD release, the band’s playing dozens of shows to support the album, both near Reno and in slightly more far-flung cities.
Keyser Soze now has a European booking agent, but still has no agent in the United States. Tarkington still books all of their shows, including the handful of dates this fall. Tarkington doesn’t mind either way. It was other things that set European shows and American shows apart.
“They treat ya’ hella good.”
He said touring the U.S. is much easier simply because of comfort. There’s no language barrier or exchange rate to worry about.
But, unlike the states, Tarkington said, “I wake up in the van and I’m like, ’We’re in motherfuckin’ Budapest!’”
That kind of romanticism—a sort of surreal feeling of being in a completely foreign place—is what many bands yearn for, a sense of bridging gaps like language and currency, and enjoying the same music despite the small differences that might exist.
Tarkington said that the experience isn’t out of reach for other bands.
“If you push to make something professional and unique, it doesn’t matter that people in Europe haven’t heard of Reno. It’s about your work, not your location.”
Tarkington reflected on Keyser Soze’s success in Europe with a sort of excited humbleness. Not only excited for his own band’s feats, but excited to help other people do the same thing—take another step forward, make another connection. He’s excited to help push that same success onto others.
Ska has an aura of camaraderie. And though that atmosphere can be lost on some of the more play-for-fun ska bands, the practitioners of the genre mainly pride themselves on the genre’s working class roots and deep history in sparking community-centric music scenes.
Those principles are exactly what Tarkington cites as his major influences, and what he thinks made the tour a success. And the band hopes to build on that success: Each member has been assigned a different language to learn for the next European tour.
That’s right, they’re going back.
And they can’t wait.