Sharing The Merry Madness of the Moment: The Alcapones

By: Will Baumgartner

There are three things I can pretty much guarantee if you go to an Alcapones show:

  1. You’ll leave feeling shaken up, stirred, and poured into a very pretty vessel.
  2. You’ll have trouble finding enough wild words to describe what you’ve just experienced.
  3. You’ll probably dance all the way home. I mean, unless you’re, like, DEAD! But even then, by the time the show is over, you’ll probably have been brought mysteriously and miraculously back to life.
The Alcapones.

The Alcapones.

This Boulder-based band hits the stage like a traveling minstrel show, determined to breathe as much life and fun into (insert your town name here) as they possibly can, and they do just that with their driving rhythms, delirious horn harmonies, and pointedly silly/ridiculous/wise singalong songs. The group is relentless in their determination to have as much fun as they possibly can, and to make sure their audience feels as much a part of the madcap show as the band itself. During their recent party/performance at the Boulder Theater, I don’t think I heard a single, stale exhortation to “get up and dance”, a phrase you so often hear from other bands. Why? They didn’t need to try to make the audience dance, it just happened.

A huge aspect of this instant dance-party atmosphere (and one that every band who aspires to create a similar feel with their show could learn from) is the Alcapones’ instinctive understanding that if you want your crowd to cut loose and be spontaneous, you’ve got to embody that same spirit onstage. This is a quality The Alcapones have in spades: a huge percentage of what’s going on up there when they play was not scripted or rehearsed. It’s the overwhelming, joyous madness of the moment taking them over. So if you go to one of their shows and find yourself inexplicably unable to loosen up and go a little crazy, perhaps you should have your vital signs checked. And if you find that you are in fact clinically dead, don’t worry: The Alcapones probably have a cure for that too.

Now let’s move on to our interview (in which the group repeatedly made me laugh hard): like all the best interview subjects, these brilliant maniacs have a way of eclipsing my rather simple questions with the overflowing poetry of their answers.

I saw one of your shows recently and was swept up in the powerful, dance-friendly music, and the overwhelming spirit of fun you create onstage. Although your Facebook page and website describe you as being primarily ska and reggae, I heard many other influences as well. What artists have influenced the Alcapones most directly?

Early Jamaican music from the 1960s influences our music most heavily. Artists like The Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, Lynn Taitt, The Pioneers, The Ethiopians, Prince Buster, Lee Scratch Perry, Laurel Aitken, and The Specials have had a very direct impact on our sound. Naturally, as a ska/reggae band, we have some tributes to Bob Marley thrown in; however, our sound is more 'early Bob' in that we focus on a faster, more upbeat ska-feel, rather than a slower reggae sound that's more typical of 70s and 80s Jamaican music.  Our “other” influences would include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Parliament Funkadelic, Fela Kuti, Taraf De Haidouks, Dusty Fingers, and a smorgasbord of international/world/middle eastern Yiddish and Klezmer music.  

You had a few guest musicians onstage with you at the show I saw. Do you use guest/sit-in players often? What are the most people you've ever had onstage at once? 

Our core group is six or seven members (when Johannes is in town), but we are lucky enough to feature a heavy hitter from time to time. Occasionally some renegade jazz cats show up unannounced. We’re methodized misfits and we attract other methodized misfits, who also miraculously play horns.  

What's the history of this band? When and how did the group start, and what changes have occurred since that formation?

Several members started a reggae dub project called Weapons of Mass Creation back in 2011. That group fell apart in 2012 but some of the members wanted to keep playing together, and to make the sound more of a ska feel. And so begins our story:

Sam (on accordion) and Shaun (on sax) met and jammed out to some Joe Gibbs and Lee Perry, realizing that they had a mutual love for the music. They began playing on Pearl St. as a two-piece.

Eventually, Sam introduced Shaun to Clay and Johannes, and Clay happened to know a metal drummer (Jake). Prior to The Alcapones, Jake had never played one drop rhythm, but his youth and aggressive backbone beats have become part of our signature sound.  

In 2014, the Swedish international superstar, Johannes (trombone) moved with his wife to Chile. But he still frequents a couple of shows a year dressed in a red onesie; he always brings some punk rocker poetry and plays a mean shaker.

Tom, the replacement trombonist, was sourced from Wyoming’s Craigslist. He was looking to make a buck doing some church gigs, and later confessed that he was actually armed when he came to the first rehearsal, as he didn’t know what we were all about.

Finally, hot off the boat from Hawaii, Jayma (clarinet) took a quick job as a ski instructor up at Eldora, where her fateful path would cross with the band on a night when The Alcapones played at a party. She had just come from a jazz jam at an old folks home when she hopped up on stage, unannounced, and ripped a few solos while metaphorically punching us upside the head with her circus antics. Needless to say, she fit right in, and she’s been in the band ever since.  

While watching the group onstage, I kept thinking of Gogol Bordello. I know your core sound comes mostly from Jamaica, but I wonder: are y'all familiar with this group and has their Eastern European gypsy-carnival style influenced The Alcapones at all? 

To even be remotely compared to Gogol Bordello is an honor. We have been tinkering with the Klezmer sound and studying some of the scales and the basic Hebrew idiom that make up their music. For us, that sound is especially enhanced when Shaun is on accordion. The clarinet also adds to this flavor. Our partycore modus meshes naturally with the street party style that Gogol bring to their shows. It’s spontaneous combustion. It’s in our blood, and so we cough up whatever comes up from the infinite spastic envelope of a liberating process.

We also find a lot in common with the upbeat bluegrass styles that are popular in the CO mountains, and play shows with bands like Caribou Mountain Collective frequently. That's why we sometimes call our music island-grass or mountain ska, to distinguish ourselves a little more. A lot of people think of ska as being third-wave ska like Voodoo Glow Skulls, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, or Reel Big Fish, but we're much more first-wave oriented. It's all part of the ska revival and the street party ethic making music for the common people, and it can be found in a lot of genres of music.

Horns on horns.

Horns on horns.

Does (lead vocalist/guitarist) Shaun Garin write most or all of your material, or is songwriting a collaborative effort?

It's a split between Shaun 62% and Sam 28%, with the others supplying the anamorphic 10% injection of whatever gets invented and connected. It’s like a bin of socks: lots of matches with a few strays.  Sam has written a lot of the horn lines and thematic impressions for our original songs, drawing heavily from the Jamaican influences we mentioned. Shaun has written full songs, but also helps meld the horn lines into more natural progressions, and he writes most of the lyrics. The other members add their opinions musically and it kind of melds together organically. It's a joint effort that takes a lot of jamming and practice to figure out what sounds the best. We’re an amazingly egalitarian group.

One of the things I'm most impressed by are your horns, so I feel compelled to ask: Who writes your horn arrangements? 

Sam usually writes the melody, or composes it after humming ideas into his phone, and Jayma and Tom add in amazing harmonies. The horn lines are constantly evolving, and each show can be dramatically different when premeditated execution gives rise to monotony. It’s a kind of Ouija board method combined with an extemporaneous Mandelbrot series. A recent fan described it best when he said "gushing horn-lines." We want to make ourselves cry while we pull your heart-strings; to balance that in-your-face funky aggression with the sweetness that could make Saint Cecilia weep.  

Listen to The Alcapones album Happy

What can an audience expect from an Alcapones show, and what do you hope they'll take away from it when they go home?

Rawness. Sincerity. The REAL. Whether it’s a spontaneous circus show that erupts or an introspective interpretation of a disquieted dark star, you better believe it’s going to evolve directly out of the present moment. Drop off stress and drama, insert happy and dance your face off. It's the medicine for a dark night of the soul experience. We want you to snap through! Self-express that badass self you are! And share your own unique thang, whatever that may be! We had a gal doing push ups last night front and center and we were cracking up on stage. Do whatever you want! Sit in a pimp daddy chair and simply go “yeh” and enjoy the vibe. We’re sharing and hope you share too! We want kids springing on the dance floor whirling around like a dervish… we want grandpa with his walker boogying down… (all of which has happened!). More so, we want to be that therapy for a good and grateful life.

So what’s next for The Alcapones?

Recording our second album with a desire to continue to grow in gladness by playing shows for our people. Lady Gaga say’s she’ll be the first to play a show in space. We say we’ll be the first to do some extreme banding in a hot air balloon with bungee jumping.

The Alcapones will perform at the Dark Horse this Saturday (04/23), and at the St. Julien in May (05/06). For more news, photos, videos and fun, visit them on their website or Facebook.

-Will

All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.