At a December 2016 show at Romano’s in Riverside, Hepcat comes onstage with style and flair, laughing with excitement as the horn section announces the arrival of sweet harmonies from singers Greg Lee and Alex Désert. The crowd erupts in cheers, and the tightly packed skinheads, mods, rudies and folks who don’t give a fuck about any scene immediately break out in arm-swinging, bouncing dance.
Hepcat were meant to play only one backyard show in L.A. in the late ’80s. Nearly 30 years later, they've honed their sound into one of the cornerstones of California reggae and ska revival, regularly drawing large crowds on tours across the country and the occasional performance outside the United States. This year, they celebrate the 20th anniversary of Right on Time, their first LP on Hellcat Records, third overall, and perhaps the band’s most popular.
“The records before it were kind of like what [their titles] said: [debut album] Out of Nowhere. On [second album] Scientific we were trying to figure it out, and Right on Time was like right when we got it,” Lee says. “We know what to do onstage, we know what to do live, we know how we want to bring the music and we also know how to feel ourselves in it.”
Hepcat released only two more albums — 2000’s Push and Shove and a live recording from a 1992 performance at Whisky a Go-Go — but their unique stage presence, traditional sound and deep L.A. roots managed to sustain the group.
“We started playing in 11th grade or something, so nobody really thought of themselves of musicians’ musicans,” Lee says. “I don’t believe we come off as fully confident … I think that lends to the sound. Because it feels right.”
Coming up in 1980s L.A., original members Lee and keyboardist/vocalist Deston Berry had played in two-tone–sounding groups and would go to see whatever ska band they could — from Donkey Show to No Doubt. But they were most excited about and inspired by the DJs, who would spin reggae, rocksteady and early Jamaican ska between sets. Lee told Berry, “I want to make a band that plays music to make people dance, not run around and punch each other and things like that.”
They pieced together a band that included Greg Narvas on drums, Raul Talavera on alto sax and current Slackers member Dave Hillyard on tenor sax. Lee met vocalist Alex Désert, an actor later known for roles in PCU, Swingers and Boy Meets World, at a Toots & the Maytals show at the Palace. “Toots hit the stage, calls all the rude boys, then I look next to me and [Alex was] dancing. We shake hands and have been friends ever since,” Lee says.
After their first backyard gig, Hepcat met local promoter GSpot, who got the band an opening spot at Reseda Country Club. Each show begat another, and Hepcat would go on to play at the Palomino, the Alligator Lounge, Koos Café in Long Beach and King King in Hollywood, where the underage band would have to wait in an alley outside the venue between sets.
“Hepcat was to the T playing like The Skatalites or The Wailers, from the vocal harmonies to the horn lines or, most importantly, the rhythm section,” says Jesse Wagner of The Aggrolites. “They were just nailed to this certain sound — from ’64 to ’67. They were the kings of it.”
While the band would write originals, they also performed covers of popular ska and reggae songs — which they continue to do to this day, with heavy influence from an early tour with The Skatalites. “In those couple of months we realized we had something unique unto ourselves. … That’s when songs like ‘Earthquake and Fire’ [off Out of Nowhere] got started,” Lee says.
Hepcat got another serious education from fans in the Midwest, who applauded like crazy at shows but never danced. After saying “Fuck the Midwest” on a St. Louis radio station, a DJ let the band in on a secret: Two-tone and third-wave ska fans didn’t know how to dance to the more mellow rhythms of classic ska and rocksteady.
“That’s when Alex and I started to do dances together, to be cheerleaders for the crowd and show them you can do this and this,” Lee says. That Midwest tour, he notes, “was really pivotal, because we realized what we needed to do to reach audiences that weren’t ready-made for ska, for our band.”
Over the years, Hepcat would take their show on Warped Tour and open for the likes of Ben Harper, Taj Mahal, The Allman Brothers and Prince. When L.A. was devoid of old school–sounding ska and reggae bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s, “They started a whole new revival scene,” Wagner says. “If it wasn’t for Hepcat, I wouldn’t have toured; I wouldn’t have started The Aggrolites.”
Hepcat released their last original album in 2000 and went on a short hiatus, then continued to tour the West Coast and elsewhere in the States. In 2007, longtime bassist David Fuentes died, and the remaining members of the band — some of whom were readying to leave the country, others of whom just wanted a break after a decade of touring — went into existential crisis.
“He was integral to our sound. … [We’ve had] no one who could come creatively with bass lines like Dave did,” Lee says. “Part of the reason why we haven’t done much in years [is] the majority of songs that people like are ones that have influence from each person in the band.”
In 2015, Hepcat lost another member when guitarist Aaron Fletcher Owens died from congestive heart failure. Owens joined Hepcat right after high school as a player on Right on Time and had become a full-fledged member by Push and Shove. His “soulful style on the guitar gave him a loud voice in the Southern California ska and reggae scene,” OC Weekly's Nate Jackson wrote shortly after his death. Hepcat was among a number of bands who payed tribute to Owens and his brother, famed keyboardist and producer Ikey Owens, at the El Rey Theatre later that year.
Today, Hepcat tours infrequently, with occasional gigs in Riverside and San Francisco, or at festivals; an appearance at Reggae Fest Chicago in August drew fans from California, New York and Mexico. The band will perform on a double bill with The Slackers at Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas this May. Yet after more than 10 years without a new record, Hepcat’s longevity as an independent band is impressive — and also a testament to the enduring, universal appeal of ska and reggae.
Ska, Lee believes, “appeals to people kinda at a certain age where it is just all that they want in their lives. So when they accept Hepcat in, it becomes a piece of the story of their lives. Then other people at that age group find it and do the same thing and it repeats itself.” In places such as Brazil, which typically don’t have the same influences of Jamaican music and punk rock, Hepcat became the entry point to a new world of music.
The studied but seemingly effortless cool of Hepcat’s performances — from coordinated dances to beautiful harmonies on a cover of Derrick Harriott’s “The Loser” — catches people and makes them feel good, Wagner says. “I think that’s why Hepcat today is just as popular as Hepcat was 10 years ago, 15 years ago. Everybody knows that when they see Hepcat once, they know what a great time it was.”