Of the many ska and ska-punk bands that emerged from the SoCal region in the ‘90s, Hepcat were far from the most commercially successful. They were, however, one of the more authentic when considering the original Jamaican rocksteady sound. Meanwhile the fanbase that they built through a riotous live show and albums that included the Out of Nowhere debut, Scientific on BYO, and Hellcat releases such as Right on Time and Push ’n Shove, has remained loyal.
On Friday and Saturday, Hepcat celebrates the 20th anniversary of Alex’s Bar in Long Beach with two shows, as they reach their own third decade. It’s been a long road to get to here — one that has seen tragedy as well as copious levels of unmitigated joy. They might not have reached those No Doubt-levels of arena-headlining success, but they didn’t get into this to get rich.
“We were swept away in the ‘90s ska boom, because all these bands that picked up playing ska all around us, or who had played before us, were suddenly top of the pops,” says singer Greg Lee. “We just kept doing our thing. Like, it’s good for them. A little weird, y’know? But we’ve been on that trip ever since. We’re not following the same motivations as the other bands that we’ve come to know over the years. We came to know this past year when the Pick it Up! Ska in the ’90s documentary came out and everybody told their stories — No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, all these people told their stories about trying to make it big using ska in the music industry. We didn’t know anybody was about that. We just thought everybody was like us. So there’s nothing that keeps us going — we just are. We started by wanting to play one backyard party a long time ago. That parlayed into a couple of shows, and we kept playing. We love what we do, we love our job.”
Despite there being, in hindsight, differences in objectives, there was a kinship between those ‘90s ska bands in L.A and the O.C. Lee says that, even when they didn’t love a band’s music, they loved the people.
“We were almost always friends,” he says. “We all played together and knew each other well. It was a scene. They’re doing their variety of ska and this group of kids loves them, and we’re doing our variety of ska and rocksteady, and we love what we do. It never really was about who liked us — it was about us liking ourselves.”
Naturally, there was a huge crossover with the fans despite the differences. Fans of Save Ferris and No Doubt would often be at Hepcat and Sublime shows, and vice versa. There’s still a scene today, though Lee sees himself as something of an observer.
“Think of it this way — we’re in a very slow moving time capsule and we’re watching people buzz and whizz by us all the time,” he says. “I imagine it must be sort of like the same as the old guys from Jamaica who played ska and rocksteady who are still alive, or lived to see some of the new ska bands, including the two-tone bands. They’re watching them going, ‘Hmm, that’s neat. They’re on the radio, making videos and everything else.’ We’re just watching it happen, not necessarily watching people go by us but watching the whole thing unfold, fold back up, get thrown in the waste can and start back up again.”
In 2007, longtime bassist Dave Fuentes died and then, in 2015, guitarist Aaron Owens also passed away. That was a tragic double-hit for the band, and Lee admits that it was hard to carry on.
“It was super hard, particularly with Dave because I guess we still had some commitments to our record label and we just weren’t really up for it,” he says. “It was very hard — we’re very dear friends with his wife and she had to watch this band continue without her husband being up there on the right-hand side playing bass. We played here and there over the years, and little by little we realized that this is what we do. It’s not our job — it’s a second job, but we do love to do it. We get to play the music we love for the reasons we love it — to see two people get together and actually dance with each other. Not just standing there with a beer and their phone nodding their head to the beat. They actually dance, and we get to create that atmosphere. It’s something special that we all love. Like I said when Dave passed, we lost it for a little while — that understanding. But as Dave would say, why can’t we just play? That’s the banner we run under these days.”
It’s been a hot minute since their last studio release. Besides a live album in 2011 and an Out of Nowhere re-release in 2004, their last album was Push ’n Shove in 2000. Lee says that they’re about to put that right.
“We have like three records of new material,” he says. “We just need to stop doing all our other crap. We have to finish them. There are a bunch that are done, there’s a bunch on the work table we’ve been messing around with for a number of years. I think our turn is coming soon. Even though I’ve been saying that for a while, right now it feels like it’s very close because it appears that everybody is motivated. We have weekly writing sessions and we meet up quite a bit to talk about what we’re trying to do.”
Lee says that the toxic political climate in this country actually held them back for a minute as they paused to think about what sort of band they want to be going forward.
“In my experience, good music always comes with bad politics,” he says. “But this is a special bad time. You want to say a lot. You want to climb up to the top of a mountain and say ‘Screw this’ and ‘Fuck that,’ and ‘Fuck you if you think of these people that way.’ But we have to pull back and remember that that’s not our thing. Our thing is the politics of people. The politics of people meeting each other and the mechanics of what happens as an after effect of that. We got pulled off of that path for a little while because of politics. I actually think the record we’re working on now would have been done two years ago had all this not come to pass.”
This weekend, we might here one or two of those new songs in Long Beach. Lee says that the two shows will be very different so it’s worth going to both.
“We’re leaning towards one being really old Hepcat stuff that we never play, and the next being newer mixed with really new that nobody’s heard,” he says.
As for the rest of 2020? More work, including getting a new album out. It is, after all, what they love to do.
Hepcat plays with Cutty Flam at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 10 and Saturday, January 11 at Alex’s Bar.