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Ruder Than You

Slow Gherkin
Robert Scheer

Horny Horns: Ska group Slow Gherkin is second only to the Boardwalk in beachside attractions

Ska's unifying spirit lives on in Santa Cruz band Slow Gherkin

By Todd S. Inoue

DOWNTOWN SANTA CRUZ takes Halloween seriously. Tonight, Pacific Avenue, the town's main drag, yields the usual cast of characters stretching the waistband of taste even farther. There are men dressed as women, women dressed as jocks, jocks dressed as themselves, all looking for a cheap trick or treat.

The eight beach-side residents who make up Slow Gherkin are used to the annual Halloween freak show. Tonight, they're even contributing to it: the rising young ska group is headlining Palookaville for a hometown concert. Three hundred tickets have been sold in advance, and a huge walkup crowd is expected--not bad for a night filled with more sordid temptations.

"It's inconceivable to me," Slow Gherkin's vocalist, James Rickman, confesses before the show when I ask how it feels to be on the brink of something big. "I'm always in a constant volley between being used to these things and being dumbstruck. I'm dumbstruck right now. I'm more nervous than I've been in a long, long time."

Slow Gherkin is the biggest musical draw in Santa Cruz and is poised to break through in the valley (the band plays the Edge in Palo Alto Nov. 20). The group's distinctive brand of uptempo ska has proven irresistible. Its debut effort, Double Happiness (Asian Man Records), found its way into the hands of 6,000 fans. The album ranked three times in the "Top 10 Bay Area Releases" list in the last three issues of BAM magazine, soundly trouncing Third Eye Blind, Primus and cover stars the Dance Hall Crashers. Slow Gherkin is currently on a Tomatohead Records tour in support of Bay Area Ska, a compilation CD to which it contributed four tracks.

For a band that started out with modest dreams, Slow Gherkin is now in a position to care about its future. With so much going on, the members have decided that music is their top priority. Time will be taken off from work and school to devote to the cause: touring, song writing, recording.

"Growth hasn't been an issue until recently," Rickman says. "In the first three years, during interviews, I would always say we don't have a plan or weren't worried about it. Now we've started thinking about future plans and the possibility that this could be a full-time thing."

Zack Kent, the group's bassist, adds, "We're the kind of band that needs to keep working and always be the underdog. If I wasn't worrying how to make the band better, I don't know what I'd be doing."

THANKS TO the constant pumping that commercial radio has given bands like Save Ferris and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, ska is the current choice of a new generation. The Jamaican precursor to reggae is going through its third resurgence since the '60s. The most recent incarnation is larded with elements of punk and pop, but while many groups infuse the genre with sappy pop conventions, Slow Gherkin is an unabashed arbiter of ska's basic element: rhythm.

"There's a new vogue, a reactionary thing against the word 'ska,' " Rickman explains, feigning a sour taste. "It's such a great genre, and it's served us so well. I don't think anybody should be ashamed to play ska."

Ska's socially conscious roots make their way into Slow Gherkin's songs in such tracks as "Factories" and the pro-vegetarian "Mutually Parasitic." The majority of the songs on Double Happiness address weighty topics: cynicism ("Slaughterhouse," "Thumbs Down to Generation X") and unrequited love ("Cable") and road rage ("Bad Driver"). Forget the title: Double Happiness isn't just about the good times.

The band's fascination with ska began four years ago when Rickman, Kent, saxophonist Phil Boutelle and guitarist A.J. Marquez met in high school. The four gained inspiration from the occasional ska/ska-punk shows that made it to Santa Cruz, featuring Skankin' Pickle and Bad Manners, among others. This nucleus picked up parts along the way, until the soap-box racer that was Slow Gherkin become a fully stocked, finely tuned Nova.

Nowhere is this development more apparent than in the band's live shows. Gherkin's accelerated brand of ska is horn-based rather than grounded in guitars. At the intimate Gaslighter in Campbell, for instance, the band doesn't even need to amplify the horns. The four-man brass section--Boutelle, Ross Peard, Josh Montgomery and Matt Porter--gives front-row fans an instant facelift. All other elements plow away in conjunction, fronted by Rickman's marionette-like stage antics.

The goal is to mirror the energy of British ska revivalists the Specials and the blue-collar work ethic of Mike Watt's fIREHOSE.

"fIREHOSE would do 60 nights in a row," Kent notes with wonder. "Every night, there'd be at least 300 people. They had a strong following, no videos. They went from an indie label to a major, and it didn't affect them at all. They kept making great music, stayed with the roots, paid their bills."

Band members remember a show in San Antonio, Texas, opening for the Siren Six. Someone had an old tape of the Specials on Saturday Night Live and popped it into the house VCR. The sight of the second-wave ska favorites going berserk on national TV simultaneously uplifted and depressed the band. "It upstaged everybody," keyboardist Peter Cowan admits. "It was that good. Everyone was staring at the TV for 10 minutes."

JUST AS GHERKIN has ratcheted up its skintight performances, so too have audiences expanded their expectations, especially the hometown fans, who have seen the band multiple times. For tonight's Halloween show, Slow Gherkin plans on unleashing two new songs (an intro vamp, "Spooky Ska," and "How Now Lowbrow") and gussying up its image with thrift-store costumes.

Although it's alcohol-free until the new license gets approved, Palookaville buzzes with a high from the steady diet of Hi-Fives punk pop and Monkey's traditional take on ska. Stagehands dish buckets of candy to the crowd, providing a dose of adrenaline that may last weeks. Slow Gherkin is due up after the costume contest (won by a pair of Devo-philes).

Backstage, a tortured Rickman is desperately trying to figure out a set list. All the songs are in his head, but he can't remember a single one. He stares at the sheet of paper, head in one hand, black Sharpie marker in the other.

Cowan and Marquez both have devilish black circles under their eyes. The members of the group have each picked a color and are dousing each other with fluorescent hair spray. Substitute Aqua Net Super Hold, and it could be a heavy-metal hair band getting ready for an arena show in the '80s.

The sound man gives drummer Zack "Ollie" Olson the ready sign, but there's still time for a few last-minute asides:

"Everyone get focused and let's rock this shit."

"I've gotta take a piss."

"You can hold it."

"Shut up! Here we go."

"1-2-3. Sloooow Gherkin--1-2-3-SLOOOW GHERKIN!"

The chant completed and demon nerves temporarily waylaid, the fellas rumble onto the stage. The blue lights hit, and screams pierce the air. The "Spooky Ska" intro welcomes the crowd, with Cowan summoning ghostly peels on his Theremin. Then the band busts into Tower of Power-meets-Madness "Slaughterhouse." The horn section blows the Halloween masks clear off the front row, revealing angelic smiles. Marquez scrapes out the double-time upstroke as Kent's fingers climb and descend his bass. Rickman is decked in his best "Let's Get Small"-era Steve Martin white suit and is playing rhythm guitar while venting lyrics in short bursts:

    Fourteen years of cynicism, boredom and anxiety
    Fourteen years of thinking that my teachers were all dead against me.
    If there were two versions of me separated by five minutes
    The elder twin would look upon me, shudder with embarrassment.

"Michael Jackson" bites the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" intro, then careens into some Skankin' Pickle-flavored ska-punk. "How Now Lowbrow" chastises those who go to school and think they've learned everything.

"Trapped Like Rats in Meyer's Flat" chases away the clouds with its solid brass phrasings. On a good night, especially on rave-up selections such as "Pachuco" (a cover of a song by the rock en Español group Maldita Vecindad) and "Meyer's Flat," this brass section could rival Tower of Power in strength. And Slow Gherkin has youth on its side.

Versions of "Covert Advertising," "Cable" and "Mutually Parasitic" induce soccer-hooligan chants. A tasty cover of the Specials' "Little Bitch" appeals to the old-school ska fans. Then Slow Gherkin's version of "Hava Nagilah" sends the party into overdrive as band and audience clap out the intro together. The band exudes humanism, a welcome change from the "I'm an asshole" posturing of rowdy Orange County ska posers like Goldfinger.

During "I Only Think When I'm Drunk," Rickman collapses in a heap. The group stops a beat and feigns concern. Rickman then pops up, bathed in fake blood. He finishes the songs to a curtain-call reception. "Does anyone have a washcloth?" Rickman asks, staggering about the stage. "I can assure you this is fake blood. It's amazing how it can impair one's eyesight. You still look great, by the way."

It's Halloween, and Slow Gherkin has Palookaville tricked and treated. With Santa Cruz comfortably tucked into its goodie bag, surrounding territories are next.

The Tomatohead Tour, featuring Monkey, the Adjustments, Flat Planet, Blindspot and Slow Gherkin, plays Nov. 20 at 9pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. $6 adv. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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