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[whitespace] Slow Gherkin
Photograph by Sara Sanger

Pickle Family Circus: From left to right: A.J. Marquez, Ross Peard, Zach 'Ollie' Olsen, James Rickman, Brendan Thompson, Phil Boutelle

The Gherkin Chronicles

The inside story of how the biggest Santa Cruz music phenomenon of the last decade pulled together, came apart and made ska matter in the process

By Steve Palopoli

It's Jan. 25, 1997. I'm walking into a Slow Gherkin show at the Catalyst and once again I cannot figure out exactly what kind of voodoo hex the band has put on this town to bring it so completely under its power. Not only is the show sold out--a long shot for any local band within the gaping, 800-plus-capacity maw of the Catalyst, though Gherkin did it at least a half-dozen times in a row at the height of their popularity--but the teen scenesters within seem to be actually replicating as they skank. Well, maybe not, but somehow the crowd seems to keep getting even bigger as hundreds of sweaty ska fans are pushed deep into each other's personal space. I have never seen the 100 or so feet of mirrors along the Catalyst's walls fogged up like that before or since. Onstage, the band looks like it needs some kind of air traffic control as horn players careen wildly around the stage and lead singer James Rickman dances like he is crazy for chicken. At some point I think to myself: "Santa Cruz music has never seen anything like this."

Which may or not be true, of course. But looking back, it's clear Slow Gherkin has been the most important band in this town since Camper Van Beethoven. Gherkin technically formed in 1993, though many of its members had been playing together since they were but wee tykes in a loose collective they called Join or Die. Almost 10 years later, after a slew of lineup changes and an ever-evolving sound, the band is calling it quits with their new album Run Screaming and a farewell tour that wraps up Saturday at the Vets Hall in the very town they took by storm over the last decade. What follows is simply a modest attempt to make sense of the musical phenomenon that I saw unfold over several years, an oral history of a Santa Cruz band for the ages in the words of a few of the people who were closest to it. A list of all the necessary names and IDs can be found on next page. So, to start from the very beginning ...


The Featured Players: A Slow Gherkin who's who.


1990-1993: Join or Die

JAMES RICKMAN: Join or Die is pretty loose in its definition, but it's basically our group of friends who've known each other since grade school, preschool, and started playing music together in sixth grade, including me and A.J. and Matt [Porter], who used to be in the band, and our friend Josh. We got "Join or Die" out of our history textbooks; it's an old political cartoon that Benjamin Franklin made. It just seemed like a boss logo, and a cool idea: let's get together and make it happen, or nothing will happen.

JOSH NELSON: I grew up playing music with those guys. A.J. and James I've known since I was two years old. In fifth grade, we were in the school library at Westlake Elementary, and we were talking about what we were going to do that summer. One of the ideas was to build a treehouse. The other idea was to start a band. We wanted to build the treehouse at James' house, and his mom just would not have it. So we had to form a band.

A.J. MARQUEZ: In the summer of sixth or seventh grade, we all took a pilgrimage down to Union Grove Music. I think James went first and got a Strat and a little tiny Envoy 110 which apparently could "rock the Civic." That's what they told us: "This sucker can rock the Civic." I think it was probably within that week that Matt and I went down and purchased fairly identical rigs: the $300 startup Rock the Civic kit.

JAMES RICKMAN: Inner Sanctum was largely metal. We were--I don't know, a very technical band. Before that, we were the Dead Jesters, which was pretty much metal. You know, it was the junior-high metal phase. We were fanatical about Guns N Roses, we loved Metallica and Danzig and Megadeth.

A.J. MARQUEZ: The Spinal Tap years.

JAMES RICKMAN: Then we got into high school and met some punk kids, and started getting really into punk rock.

JOSH NELSON: I always felt that our biggest influences were always the local bands. We were really into all the local bands back in those days--Melting Pot, Fiendmaster Freak, and Hedgehog, also.

JAMES RICKMAN: We'd heard some Op Ivy and thought, "Hmm, that's weird, what the hell is that?" But we didn't really know about ska until we saw Skankin' Pickle. 1990 was the first time we saw them, at Louden Nelson. Which is weird because we actually met Mike Park--the guy who now runs our label--on the street after the show. We were just wandering around the streets at about one in the morning like suburban punks do. And this band rolled by and it was Mike Park and some of the other guys from Skankin' Pickle looking for this party. We happened to know where the party was, so we got in their van, just beside ourselves, and got to hang out with them. And we were twelve.

JOSH NELSON: About sophomore year of high school, Gherkin started. There were a lot of bands starting, a lot of little projects. Everybody was always starting bands, and we were all playing in them. Gherkin was one of those. Bad Manners had come touring through Santa Cruz. Zack Kent was at that show and I remember them coming out and saying, "We gotta start a ska band." It was just this really hot, exciting new sound at the time.

JAMES RICKMAN: The name came from Zack, the first bass player. There was actually an incarnation of Slow Gherkin before this one, with some other dudes. I just remember showing up to school one day and going to my locker and there was a paper sticker of a frog's face that said, "Do You Want to Do the Slow Gherkin With Me?" And I thought, "That's the coolest thing I've ever seen." The band had one practice or something, and that was it, and then they made these stickers. So by the end of the school year, I was like, "Let's bring it back. We've got to revive Slow Gherkin!" We didn't even know how to spell it then, it was G-e-r-k-e-n.

A.J. MARQUEZ: Our first show as Slow Gherkin, at Phil's [Boutelle] mom's house, we got a trombone player, this guy Brigham, who was a little bit older than us. He hooked us up with the bar circuit at about--I mean, we were what, 15, 16?

Slow Gherkin I Only Scream When I'm Punk: Ross (left) and James rage onstage in Wales.

Photograph courtesy Kate Hawley

1994-1996: Double Happiness

A.J. MARQUEZ: We started practicing in our friend Josh's garage. He wasn't in the band, but he was sort of playing organ. We had found this free, huge church organ that we went and took a truck up and grabbed. He was playing that, but it didn't have an input, and we didn't really have the resources to mike it, so it never really got anywhere.

JOSH NELSON: You couldn't really hear me. I played organ for a couple of weeks, but the other big thing at the time was skateboarding. Since I couldn't hear myself, I was just like, "Man, I'd really like to be skateboarding right now." So I did that. And of course I regretted it later.

A.J. MARQUEZ: But we practiced in his house just about every day after school. Then we started writing songs.

JAMES RICKMAN: I think A.J. and I had a very good dynamic, which is that I tend to be negative and sarcastic, and A.J. is positive and uplifting. So that's great. If it were all me it would be a very gloomy, dumb thing all together. But I think we put each other's attitudes in perspective.

A.J. MARQUEZ: I've never considered myself to be much of a lyricist at all. I try to speak with a little bit of conviction, but I have a hard time. But I have found one of the most effective ways to write lyrics is to just drive all night, no music.

JAMES RICKMAN: He does that in the van. He likes to zone in on the sound of the engine and just drive. That's how he earned the name "Grandpa" when he's behind the wheel. He goes 55. No music. No talking.

A.J. MARQUEZ: I always feel like I write the simple songs. The other guys put the intricacies on there--for a long time, we had this horn section that was a bunch of kind of jazz nerds layering this stuff on. I feel like for me when a song comes together it's me bringing in a simple melody and simple chords and them putting these layers on top of it.

CAROLINE SUPERFAN: I just loved the horn section. They were so good. They didn't have the regurgitated hack music that a lot of ska bands had. They had original stuff, and the musicality of it was incredible. It was different, it was very cool, and as a 16-, 17-year-old it spoke to me and made me feel good rather than getting all depressed.

JOSH MONTGOMERY: I think we all had kind of a common vision for this, all the horn players. We wanted to go with a big sound. I was really influenced by trumpet players like Maynard Ferguson. Rob was a jazz guy and was writing some really good horn lines and Phil was even pretty influenced by jazz.

ROB PRATT: I saw a sign for a saxophone player wanted at the old Four Winds Music, which is where the Atelier Gallery is now. So I called up and I don't even remember who I talked to--it must have been Zack. He invited me to come up and rehearse with the band so we could check each other out. It was an interesting scene. They were put together in a garage kind of up on the university terrace, I think it was Fridley Street. It was a garage that belonged to friends of the band, I think most of them were all still in high school. I must have been about 26, so I walked in and I felt like the old man--I was nine or ten years older than some of them. I felt pretty uncomfortable, but then they started playing music and it was just so quirky. I remember watching James just howl from behind the drums and stuff was falling over. A.J. was rolling around on the floor with his guitar ... I really liked the music, it was really raw. Some of them could barely play, but there was some musical truth there, I guess, that attracted me.

CAROLINE SUPERFAN: I remember the story of when Rob tried out with them. Of course the boys were trying to just, like, play the song, and Rob takes off on his solo. And they're all just totally blown away by his musical skills and they're like, "Yeah, you're in. No questions asked, you're in."

JAMES RICKMAN: We did a 7-inch on "Join or Die Records." It was our first noncassette release where we went to an actual studio. Mind you, it was a trailer in Moss Landing, but it was a studio, and we recorded four songs and put out a 7-inch record ourselves. That came out December '94.

A.J. MARQUEZ: It was on the charts in Canada. For real. We went up to a radio station in Vancouver, and it was on the charts--our 7-inch! It was like the college charts. Amazing.

JAMES RICKMAN: Late '94 I remember we had started playing Palookaville, and these shows were blowing up. We were shocked. We weren't headlining them, we'd play with other ska bands from the area. And they'd just be huge. By the third one it was, like, sold out and all crazy. And the 7-inch came out soon after that, so we got through a thousand of them pretty fast. I think we repressed and then Bad Monkey Records took it over.

JAMES RICKMAN: We had Rob Pratt at that time, and he was the mastermind behind Double Happiness. He was a lot older than us and had a lot more savvy and maybe a different vision--or just more vision--than we had about how to make things happen. 'Cause, you know, we were still in that kind of punk thing--get it out fast and make sure you've got the energy. He wanted a really tight, polished album.

ROB PRATT: It was zero money, and we really worked the poor engineer. We really did it on a shoestring.

JAMES RICKMAN: The whole process took eight months, paying for it ourselves.

ROB PRATT: That was definitely a hardship, and I'm sure I was a hardship on a lot of the members of the band. I feel like I was a real prima donna about producing it. A lot of the things I don't really feel good about that I put my foot down on. But I really feel like the one thing if anything that I really tried to do right was just insist on doing things musically OK.

A.J. MARQUEZ: We had no idea how to do it. We wanted to have just as much as we could on there. We wanted it to be fun. We incorporated just about every song we had written up to that point.

ADAM LEVIN: The first time I saw them was they played a social hour at College Eight when I was a freshman in college at UCSC. By '96, I hadn't heard that much ska--I went to high school in Idaho, so I was sort of detached from all things hip, especially hip music. But I started to find out about it through KZSC, and then one day I saw a poster for Slow Gherkin playing in the quad--which I subsequently snatched and still have in my house--and sort of fell in love with what they were doing from there. It was just a great rock show. Genres aside, they were just a great rock & roll band from the beginning. They had this amazing energy on stage.

JAMES RICKMAN: My impulse is to get out there. I just want to grab people. Everything short of what could get me arrested I want to do to these people, and they usually feel the same way. And then you get that chemistry.

ROB PRATT: In the middle of the Slow Gherkin phenomenon, we were playing the Catalyst and I invited down Ken Kraft [former guitarist for '70s Santa Cruz breakout band Snail and local recording engineer] and he was absolutely bowled over. He said something to the effect of--well, he was probably diplomatic and said something like, "It sounds like you need to work a little bit on intonation, but there's really something here." He was probably thinking, "I don't know if that brass section can play in tune to save their lives." But we talked about pop music and how it works and I asked him, "How did Snail work?" And he said, "Well, it really helps if you grow up in this town and are young and have a lot of friends who you can get there to build up the momentum. 'Cause when you get older, it doesn't happen that way." For me, it was a great chance to understand the phenomenon.

CAROLINE SUPERFAN: I just totally dug their music. They were a mixture of Santa Cruz ska, some punk, some jazz, some everything. Every time I would go to shows I was just so incredibly ebullient, and then I would come home and just be bouncing off the walls. So I would go to all their shows, and I would talk to the guys. My sister, who is two years older than I am, actually went to school with them, so I kind of knew them.

ADAM LEVIN: I know he'll hate to hear that I loved it, but seeing Matt Porter slaughter a life-size plush teddy bear onstage at the Catalyst was classic Slow Gherkin. Watching him throw it into the audience and seeing the air fill with this thick soup of doll stuffing and sweat. They had these sort of insane stage moments.

A.J. MARQUEZ: Back in the day, we would push for that, sort of like a P-Funk show where it was just so visual and chaotic and there had to be this grand finale, which usually involved finding the hugest, cheapest stuffed animal we could.

JAMES RICKMAN: The Catalyst made us stop doing that because all the little Styrofoam balls got everywhere.

Slow Gherkin
Photograph courtesy Adam Levin

Get in the Van: Josh Nelson (left) and Gherkin (along with members of the U.K. band Lightyear) on tour in Brighton, England

1997-1998: Shed Some Skin

ADAM LEVIN: At that time, they were both the hottest thing going in Santa Cruz and in some respects the only thing going. There weren't a whole lot of young local bands that were filling the Catalyst at that time, or that were able to go out on tour. They were already touring at that point. I think they stood out in a lot of respects.

JOSH NELSON: It was spectacular. It was really exciting. I would ask James, "Can you believe this? You're playing sold-out shows downtown all the time. This is something we dreamed about." Like we'd literally tell each other in junior high, "Oh my god, I had this dream last night we were playing this huge show."

JAMES RICKMAN: It was hard to get perspective and think, like, wow, look at this, this is really something. But I'm sure we were pretty chuffed. I'm sure we had an extra dip in our hip walking around.

ROB PRATT: The band also worked extremely hard. We had an awful lot of fun just playing everything, you know? Somebody's birthday party. We did a bar mitzvah. We would show up at people's houses and play unannounced. Just all the time, playing if there's a sound system or not, if there's room or not. That was the most fun thing, I think, was just playing all the time for the thrill of the moment. I've played in a lot of situations, in front of a lot more people, but I think some of the most fun times I've ever had playing had to be those little parties that Slow Gherkin did seemingly every weekend for 100 people, 150 people. That's where real music happens.

JAMES RICKMAN: By the time of Shed Some Skin, we were on Asian Man, and when we were ready to put the album out, [Mike Park] just plopped us into this amazing studio in Campbell. We just drove up to this place, and it's huge. It's got a 2-inch tape machine and this enormous, like, laboratory where this guy who used to be in Emerson, Lake and Palmer and played bass for Sammy Hagar was at the board. We were recording in this sort of honeycomb of rooms. It was amazing. And it was leisurely, too, which is probably the biggest thing. We just worked these sort of business days--very dignified eight-hour days--and there was no sense of "We've got to get this done in this amount of time." It was just however long it took. It was about 2 1/2 weeks to track everything, and then there was mixing, which we took gradually with several drafts. In other words, the exact opposite of what we just did [for Run Screaming].

ADAM LEVIN: I enjoyed Double Happiness, but Shed Some Skin is still one of my favorite records. Double Happiness was a record made by kids, and Shed Some Skin was a record made by people growing into adulthood. I think if you look at the lyrical content, you'll see that. For ska music that was coming out in '98, it was unlike anything else. Just look at what was popular then with Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris and stuff like that. This was a really thoughtful record, it wasn't just "I love my girlfriend, she loves me, oh no, she broke up with me." This was a real record talking about some heady stuff. And I appreciated that, I appreciated music that spoke to people who wanted something more than inane pop. The song "Shed Some Skin" is one of the most touching songs I can think of.

JAMES RICKMAN: For "Shed Some Skin," I just took three different stories about friends that had gone out in the world. We're from Santa Cruz, we've basically been in Santa Cruz all our lives, but when I wrote that song it was the first time we were starting to lose guys to college or career. We had a friend who was a chef in Paris, Gaylan Z., and we had another friend who'd gone to Russia to be an English teacher. And our best friend, Josh, who comes up a lot, had gone to university in Boston. That's the third verse. I didn't really have a vision about them at the time, all I wanted to do was tell these stories and how they relate to those of us back at home. It was one of those things where I thought if I just put it out I'd figure out what it meant eventually. I'm still waiting for that to happen. But it had something to do with growing up.

JOSH NELSON: I'm the "It's your 20th birthday, alone you walk the banks of Maine" guy. That's actually from a letter I wrote to James after I went to college.

A.J. MARQUEZ: Getting everybody together at that point wasn't hard at all, it was maybe trying to convince us or certain people who were like, "Why do we need to move forward? We're having a great time doing this."

JOSH MONTGOMERY: When we were in the studio, I was trying to instigate a more collaborative, collective approach. 'Cause that was my vision for the band, that this was the melding of a lot of a really talented musicians. We'd try to do more group writing and encourage other people to bring stuff in, and it really didn't work out, and that was very discouraging for me.

JAMES RICKMAN: We had very different visions, basically. And meanwhile--this is like '96, '97--some of us were in school at this point. And there was like this crossroads of "Drop everything, let's do this" and that was always a big conflict for me 'cause I was going to college. And then finally we did that in '98. Everyone quit work and school in '98, and all we did was tour and make Shed Some Skin. That was like the make or break thing, and I guess we broke.

ADAM LEVIN: I don't think success was ever as important to the band as playing music with their friends. Especially at that period, Slow Gherkin was 100 percent Join or Die. I think it was more about this great creative energy they all shared. I think the success was a byproduct of that, but it wasn't their objective in the first place.

ROB PRATT: One of the most amazing periods of time was when we were coming back from Denver and it was during a storm and we were coming up on Flagstaff, Arizona. But we got snowed in on this highway in the middle of nowhere. It was just an amazing feeling of family, like "Everybody's here, and we're all going to be all right." For me, it was a bittersweet moment, 'cause I think on that trip I was feeling like it was time for me to move on and I really kind of realized that the band had become like family, you know? Where you hate those assholes for a billion reasons, and then every once in a while you find a reason to like them.

JOSH MONTGOMERY: We did the country back and forth like six times or something ridiculous like that. Pretty much for me I hated most of it, as far as I didn't like sleeping on people's floors every night. I didn't like playing dirty punk rock clubs. But the performing every night was the exciting part, even to an empty house. Getting up there and playing with these guys.

JAMES RICKMAN: The touring was great, but it was fucking hard, too. We'd hear afterward from various band members, "Oh yeah, remember that night in Virginia when I was this close to buying a plane ticket and flying home?" There were multiple stories of that. But we loved to tour, it was the best thing in the world. We toured for 11 weeks at the beginning of '98; we got home, took one day off, and then we spent two months in the practice studio every day from 11 to 5 putting the songs together for Shed Some Skin. Really, like, every day. That was extremely hard, and there were a lot of people starting to lose faith. But we got it together and then we did Shed Some Skin and we went out for like nine more weeks. Then it was '99 and we lost three members and almost broke up.

JOSH MONTGOMERY: When I first joined the band, the writing style was very collaborative. Especially the horns, we all kind of wrote the horn lines together. Once we had a horn line we would harmonize it, but we would do it all just by ear. That took a lot of time. When I was leaving the band, it was becoming less of a collaborative writing process and more about A.J. and James. A lot of creative forces in the band left. It was Rob, then me, then Zack Kent and Peter.

JAMES RICKMAN: For the first time, it was like, "OK, it's time to practice. Where the hell is everyone?" It was clear that people were seeing for the first time that this thing had its limits, whereas before everything had been up, up, up.

Slow Gherkin Ska Strong Enough for a Man But Made for a Woman: From left to right, Josh Montgomery, Matt Porter, Phil and James

Photograph courtesy Kate Hawley

1999-2002: Run Screaming

JAMES RICKMAN: After Shed Some Skin came out and had some really disappointing returns, then we gradually realized we were no longer a ska band, and felt like people were starting to say, "What's this shit? What are you doing? You can't try to be a rock and roll band now, you've still got seven to nine guys in the band."

A.J. MARQUEZ: We had gone from a full-time band where you start to build so much momentum to really weekend warriors almost, where we're still practicing but there's no way to get it going.

JAMES RICKMAN: The songwriting was extremely slow. I remember in '98 we even flirted with the label that put out Reel Big Fish and Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Goldfinger. We talked to this guy in L.A., the producer for that label, and he was saying, "Yeah, I love your stuff. Write some new songs, send me some demos and come down to L.A. and we'll work together." Then it took us six months to write two songs, by which time I sent them off to him and never heard back. Those songs ended up on an EP in '99--"Tap Dancing" and "Salsipuedes"--but the writing of those songs was so fragmented and they changed around so much, it was obvious we were lacking some clarity. We were trying to figure out how to make it work without losing any more guys. That ended up being this kind of big, dancy rock & roll sound that we have now.

BRENDAN THOMPSON: I had only been to a couple of Slow Gherkin shows. It was kind of weird, I wasn't a guy who had been to all the shows and knew all the songs. I learned them to be in the band. I didn't know the guys that well, just kind of peripherally because I was in the What-Nots before. These guys always had such their own circle of friends, I was pretty shocked, like, "Wow, I'm going to go play with Slow Gherkin." Then I slowly became indoctrinated into the band, like I began to get the inside jokes little by little. For the first year-and-a-half, I would refer to them as "they"--"they want to do this," "they're going to do this." I never felt like I was really part of it, it took a long time because their roots were so deep. But now I feel great.

JAMES RICKMAN: Brendan was coming from the What-Nots, which was a great local band. And just a rock band, with a lot less baggage then we had as far as their genre. So I remember being surprised that he wanted to play with us. You know, 'cause we were so unhip at that point.

ADAM LEVIN: When I first proposed that I manage them, their first reaction was, "We've got to talk about it." Then they came back and said, "We're interested, here's sort of a test. We've always wanted to go to Europe and we haven't been able to figure out how to make it work." I had them on tour in Europe within a few months. It was really gratifying to go over there and see kids thrilled with this band. They even knew lyrics from import CDs they'd bought, and the Internet.

JAMES RICKMAN: For Run Screaming, we went up to Petaluma and had a couple of dignified business days laying down the rhythm tracks. Thereafter, it was almost around the clock. We'd start working about 11 or 12, and by the time we were done--and so giddy we couldn't even go to sleep--it was daylight again outside.

A.J. MARQUEZ: Prior to this album, the most important thing was that you could hear every instrument always. And we would be layering three melodies on top of each other, so it's like, well, each of those has got to come out. So it was like turn that up, turn that up, turn that up, turn that up, turn that up--until we were like, "We just turned everything up!" So with this album there were times when it was like, "What's important to hear here? What's the melody here and what's backing it up?"

BRENDAN THOMPSON: One thing about playing with these guys is that the whole vibe and the music's really positive in general. So much of rock & roll is about expressing your negative feelings, but it's been so fun playing with Slow Gherkin.

ADAM LEVIN: How many bands get to go to Europe twice, and get to tour the U.S. and pull big crowds outside their hometown? And how many bands are as respected by other bands? If you talk to anyone who's toured with them, especially in Orange County where these guys are 10 years older than a lot of the bands now in that scene, a lot of these kids look up to them as sort of the godfathers, because it's not just about being a ska band. They were a band that was out to put out great music regardless of the genre, and I think that's why a lot of these younger bands look up to them.

ROB PRATT: Slow Gherkin's outlook could really only happen in Santa Cruz--it's pretty unique to the place, I think.

JOSH MONTGOMERY: A.J.'s perfectly capable of writing a radio hit, and I always kind of thought that he would write a radio hit, and that would be it for Slow Gherkin, they would blow up ... I still think he's capable of writing one, if Slow Gherkin stayed together. I don't know if he's going to have as much of a vehicle with the other bands he's in now.

A.J. MARQUEZ: For us, it's always been playing the music together. And that's the part that's going to be the hardest part for me, when I finally realize maybe I don't have that with my friends anymore.

JOSH NELSON: We've always done a lot of different things. But when one band like Slow Gherkin is really doing a lot, everything else becomes a side project. So for me, it's really exciting now. It's not an end at all, it actually creates all sorts of new possibilities.

JAMES RICKMAN: As soon as it's really over, I don't expect to come back and get the occasional "Hey, you're you!" thing that I get now--which is the highlight of my day. I don't think the public memory for that sort of thing is very long. We've already been eclipsed by a lot of local bands. And that's fine. Just keep it rollin.'

Slow Gherkin plays Saturday, Aug. 17, at the Vets Hall. Doors open at 7:30pm, with the Velvet Teen, the Huxtables and the Plus Ones opening. Tickets are $7, available at Streetlight Records.

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From the August 14-21, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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