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Skabreakers

Photo by Piper Ferguson

Time flies when you’re a Hepcat. One minute you’re in the studio; next thing you know, you’re touring Europe and Australia, where you and your ska-purveying compatriots are greeted like conquering heroes. And one day, you look up and realize that three years have suddenly gone missing.

“It seemed like a short time until I actually looked at the numbers,” laughs Hepcat vocalist Greg Lee, referring to the space between Right on Time, Hepcat’s widely acclaimed 1998 CD, and the band’s new Push ’N Shove. “After Right on Time came out, we were just gone. When we finally got back to town last October, our label was like, ‘Okay, make another record!’”

Much has changed since Right on Time first hit the shelves. Back then, No Doubt was riding high on the charts with Tragic Kingdom, and it seemed like everyone and his baldhead granny were fighting for a seat aboard the ska gravy train. No Doubt is again riding high, of course — albeit with the more pop-oriented Return of Saturn — but in general, the much-vaunted “third wave” of ska music seems to have crested. In other words, it’s not the most opportune time to release another record of unadulterated, ’60s-style ska and rocksteady, right?

Lee doesn’t see it that way. “When ska got really popular here,” he says, “it was just like a bunch of guys in Beefy T’s and long shorts coming to the shows. They were the ones yelling ‘Dude!’ and spilling beer on us, and fighting with everybody; so you know, losing that segment of the audience really didn’t mean that much to us. Ultimately, there’ll always be an underground that loves ska and rocksteady for the same reason that we started playing it.”

Most ska outfits of Hepcat’s generation were inspired by the sounds of such “second wave” British acts as Madness and the Specials, but Lee and his friends found their motivation in the original Trenchtown sounds of the 1960s, which they often heard played between sets at area ska shows. “The shit that the DJs would play — ‘Police and Thieves’ by Junior Murvin, ‘Simmer Down’ by the Wailers, Desmond Dekker — that was the stuff that was really cool. I could see that it would really be cool for a contemporary ska band to come out and do it in the old style.”

Like most bands, Hepcat experienced some initial growing pains — “We’d hear recordings of our live shows, and it’d be like, ‘Dude, we don’t sound nothin’ like Toots & the Maytals!’” — but soon found their feet. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear that Right on Time and 1996’s Scientific were the results of some long-forgotten Studio One or Treasure Isle session.

Their second album for Hellcat Records, Push ’N Shove continues in the same blast-from-the-past vein, right down to its endearingly primitive cover art. Keyboardist Deston Berry, bassist Dave Fuentes, saxophonist Efren Santana, trumpeter Kincaid Smith, drummer Scott Abels and guitarist Aaron Owens play like a 12-handed, single-brain organism, effortlessly intertwining their parts over a kicked-back rocksteady groove while Lee purrs and croons. Unlike most contemporary ska bands, Hepcat possess a deep affinity for the American soul music that inspired their forebears, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their ganja-fried cover of Brenton Wood’s “Gimme Little Sign.”

“When I was growing up,” Lee recalls, “Brenton Wood would be playing every Thursday in Mission Hills, and nobody would be there except for me and a couple of my friends, and a whole shitload of cholos. I’ve always thought that, man, this guy deserves so much more respect than just being known for ‘The Oogum Boogum Song’!”

Push ’N Shove’s other cover is “Tek Dat,” an old calypso number performed with gravelly brio by Alex Desert, Hepcat’s popular second vocalist. An actor by trade, Desert appears regularly on the CBS sitcom Becker, a day job that definitely limits his ability to tour. “When the Becker season wraps, that’s when he usually plays shows with us,” Lee explains. “In 1998, when Alex first said, ‘I can’t tour,’ I was terrified. I felt like any mistake I made was going to be magnified 100 percent. But it worked out; it made me a much larger person, and I’m happy for the experience.”

As Push ’N Shove’s philosophical closing track reminds us, you’ve got to “live on, learn on and love on.” Yet Lee assures us that Hepcat will never stray from the sounds they (and their fans) love.

“So many bands talk about how they’re trying to ‘push the envelope,’” he says, “but I think there also comes a point where a band finds their true voice and stops there. We hit that spot awhile ago, and we’re happy with that. The music of the Caribbean influences pretty much everything we do, and I’m really happy to be able to incorporate soul, rock & roll, bossa nova, all of those things, into that. Musically, this is exactly where I want to be.”