James Aker - Royal Crown Revue
The Edge - Palo Alto, CA - November 11, 1999
 
We've all heard the song "American Band" from the 70s which has been the guiding anthem for rockers everywhere stating the fact that rock 'n' roll is the American institution. Royal Crown Revue would like to educate the masses in a bit of musical history that encompasses more than three decades. The origins of true American music transcends just time but styles as well. Royal Crown Revue often gets the basic tag of "swing music" which is a misnomer considering the wide variety of early Americana that the band plays. Truer would it be to say that Royal Crown covers everything from jump blues to swing to hot jazz to Louisiana jazz, Chicago, Manhattan and any other region one could imagine - oh, and even early rock 'n' roll. This is a band that loves it's history and has the keen sense to share it with the masses.
 
Backstage, before a recent performance at the Edge in Palo Alto, CA, we chatted a bit with guitarist James Aker who shared a bit of American musical heritage along with some background on his own band.
 
K2K: So, to start, what was the inspiration for the band to start?
JA: Oh, lots and lots of things. We're into American music, basically. Method roots music. Everything from the inception of jazz, late teens, early 20s, R&B, rock 'n' roll and every form of jazz. We're just influenced by everything that we consider to be quality form of music. We didn't intentionally start out that way. We didn't have any peers that were really interested in this style. Eddie and me, Eddie is the singer, we both kind of went through the punk rock thing and then into rockabilly and kept going that way and heading back. At the same time, we met Mondo who is the tenor in the band. He grew up in Watts and his dad was a sax player. He was a little more hip to blues and maybe like that honking sax style of the 50s. We were really good friends when we met as kids. We were all 18 or 19. That was around 11 years ago, 1988 or 1989.
 
That's sort of when we got interested in this stuff. The best part was that we didn't have a lot of education in this stuff so we didn't have a lot of preconceived notion of what we were doing. The kind of music we play is a hybrid and there's a lot of misconception. Calling it swing is a misrepresentation of what it is. It's a hybrid of a lot of American music. Swing is a feel, it's a rhythmic feel. It's that tang-ta-tang-ta-tang. We play that feel but it's not the only kind of feel that we do. We love that kind of music and that's our reverence. Our fear of letting it be labeled as swing is that we kind of have such respect for people who played swing in it's true sense, that we kind of feel what we do is a bastardization. I think it's a cool bastardization, but none the less, we're taking it our own place. When we got into this sort of style, we had a real search sort of thing. The first time that I heard Louis Prima, there was no "Best Of" Louis Prima set. You couldn't go down to Tower. There wasn't a whole section to it. A lot of his music was unavailable on CD at that time. Being as we were all into records, I would dig in Goodwill bins for 78s and just buy anything where I recognized the sidemen or label. I just got interested in all forms.
 
There's stuff like everything from jump blues. There's a million ways to cut this up, whatever it is. There's a million guys that did it on some regional levels and national level. There's so much good music out there that every day I find someone that I didn't find before. I spend volumes amounts of times just getting hip to what people did. That's a big part of it. Before we got into this, it was a sort of lost part of Americana. People sort of feel that Elvis Presley invented rock 'n' roll. Well, maybe he invented rock 'n' roll for the white mainstream but there was a lot of rock 'n' roll going on before Elvis Presley.
 
K2K: Some black people, such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, feel that Elvis Presley ripped off rock 'n' roll from the black people.
JA: Yeah, I don't feel that Elvis really took a bad rap, nor do I feel that Elvis misrepresented himself to be anything that he wasn't. He liked that music and he grew up with that music. He was just a musician. I don't felt that he suffered that sort of stigma of "Here comes that White Devil to steal the black people's music." I'm not hep enough to Public Enemy's deal.
 
K2K: Yeah, well everything gets stolen and rerouted musically through history.
JA: Well, I don't listen to listen to Public Enemy and think that they ripped anyone off. Stuff comes from somewhere. Elvis' thing was that he mixed it with country and it was acceptable by middle America. His first records were pretty raw, amazingly raw. His first records weren't what got him across, it was the RCA records later that made him the huge star that he became. He did a lot of covers. In the end he certainly had an original sound. It was a hybrid again of a lot of things. He loved gospel music. We're the same way, but we wouldn't mention what we do in the same breath as Elvis Presley. When you start talking about influences in this band, it's endless that every day you pick up a new set of them.
 
K2K: You were talking about hybrids. Now there's an "Elvis Presley" sound. Then, when the Beatles came around, there formed the "Beatles" sound. Beatlesque.
JA: I don't know sometimes. It's a hard thing to do. You just have to do what's in your heart. I'm not a marketing major. I don't approach music from that level. We do it because we like it. Music being a form of communication, hopefully we can express ourselves in a way that makes people feel what we're putting out there. Ultimately that's our quest. Touring as musicians, it's a hard thing to do. To maintain some success. Mostly just to fuel the fire, to have a good time with what we do and make a living at it. We can't starve just because we choose an art form. It's still a business.
 
K2K: What do you think of bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or Cherry Popping Daddies?
JA: They're all nice guys. I think that we approach it from a really different place than they do. It all depends on what record you're listening to. If you listen to what we were doing ten years ago, it's more like what they had going. That's how I feel about it.
 
K2K: You guys have changed labels now and gotten off of Warner Bros.
JA: Well, I just feel like we approach this thing differently. The difference between us and that is that our genre, like other genres, was jumped on by a million people at the point it got hot. I think we are different because we've had so much more time to evolve the band and consistently done what we do. Other bands, as great as they are, five or six years ago were doing a completely different thing. We do what we do. Dig us or don't. My opinion is, "As long as your happy."
 
K2K: How have you guys been doing so far with the new CD [Walk On Fire]?
JA: Oh, it's a hard time. The problem is that when there's a million bands coming out of everywhere, they're sold as a trend. The marketing was very cheesy. It took a lot of credibility out of what we initially started out to do. We were drawing from a much more sort of punk rock "do it yourself" ethic and drawing more on that kind of crowd. Each person was much more of a character, whereas last year it became disco. A lot of people who got involved in it go in solely for the money and not for the love of anything. I.E. the quality of whatever you get gets diluted by the fact that there's a million people with their hands in it, so it's sort of f***ing everything up. That's how I feel about it.
 
We're in a place where 75% of the bands who were playing this kind of music were doing alright with it, last year at this time, and now every day we find out that there's another band who fell apart. I guess the difference is that I look at it as - there's two worlds. There's the pre-Swingers thing, which was basically one band - us, and the post-Swingers thing. Quite honestly the only other band doing anything relative to what we did prior to that time, much prior to that, was the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. But they were all over the place. They would do a song that would be kind of swing and then they would do a song that sounded like Red Hot Chili Peppers. They do have good writing. There is a song that sounds like the Beatles with strings on it.
 
Ultimately, what we are about, is that people will get reeducated in this music. The few that found something that really is dear to them, hopefully they'll stick it out and stick it out with us. Look past us at what our influences are and not worry about what's on the radio and what's the new trend or whatever it is. There was a swing club here, down the street, which closed about six months ago. A year ago it was full. Whatever they changed that club to, whatever they're doing, people aren't too worried about it. I'm just worried about people who want to look through what we do and find out, historically, about the things that inspired us. Hopefully it will excite them like it excited me when I found it.
 
K2K: You guys influenced the film Swingers. You were supposed to be in it but weren't able to?
JA: We were on a major label, Warner. There was no money in it. They owned all the music. There's a reason why we're not on a major label anymore. The only way that they would make their money back is by recouping through sync fees. They think that everything they have is worth a million dollars. That works for you and sometimes it works against you. It's not really something I'm really bitter about. The thing is when someone is making an independent film, they had better have a million dollars before you even see it. Before you get involved in that, you don't know, it might be a fiasco. Just because somebody has a script or good idea, if they don't have the financing to really back it up, is it someone who is going to be able to showcase your band or not. Being that our career was a little more down the road, it was maybe not the best choice for us in their eyes, and maybe at the time, in our eyes too.
 
Here's the thing bands are stuck with is that we work hard to make this commodity, this music we make, and why should we give it away? There are times and places like charity events and things like if a marching band wants to use something, I'm not going to tell them they can't. I'm really into that. I'm into any way that I can help. At the point where somebody's going to be making money on it, why should I? That's definitely the record company's outlook, not so much the band's outlook. That's why we started our own label. We wanted to be free to do whatever it is and not answer to anyone. It's a hard business. You're supposed to create it and spend 250 nights a year on the road and then always make the right decision. 97% of this thing is hard work and most bands whose names you know at all have done it. That difference between math and getting to something more, selling a million records is: a) a lot of cash, and b) a good fortune. We were in [the film] The Mask. The reason that you never heard us on the radio is because the song was ten years old by the time that this was a trend and it was off of a record that came out ten years ago. I was like, "Yeah, but it certainly doesn't sound unlike anything that's on the radio."
 
We can just work hard and be prepared. Life is about destiny and what you're supposed to do, so all that you can do is wait for the day that fate walks in through the door. What else are you going to do? It's like, I can sit here and think, "We should have, could have and would have." But it didn't go that way. You know what? I love what I'm doing, I love the band that I play in and I love the kind of music that I play. It's just that some days, the trick is how to keep it fresh, keep marketing it yourself, and own as much of it as possible. That's sort of the path that we're on now. We've done it every other way.
 
K2K: What classic covers do you do?
JA: We're not big on covers. We've had ten years to evolve, but when we do covers, they're usually obscure. We don't cover hits. We do a Duke Ellington song called "The Mooch". We pretty much do a direct hit of his version of that. I love that. On our new record we do a song called "Trapped In The Web Of Love". That's a great tune.
 
A guy who we've really admired is the guy who did a lot of arrangements for Louis Prima, Sam Butero. He's still alive and still gigging. The problem with this world is that you can't copyright arrangements, but he did the arrangement for "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "Just A Gigolo" that was a hit for Louis Prima and then a huge hit for David Lee Roth. This guy, in his 80s, is still working the lounges in Las Vegas, totally smoking, amazing entertainer, and nobody even gives a tip of the hat. He was the main who did "Jump, Jive And Wail" and Brian Setzer won the Grammy for it. How would you feel? He's a guy who is everything that you would want to be. He's a man who has great musical skill. He's a great entertainer, which I think the world is very short on. It's usually one or the other now. There are these amazing musicians, but it's not about entertainment, it's about bragging about what geniuses they are. This music is from a time when these people were entertainers, personalities and virtuosos. For some reason, now, we just buy things based on hype and how much they are force-fed to us through the hypermedia world that we live in. I don't believe that the general public buys based on quality.
 
K2K: What's the most obscure thing that you guys have covered?
JA: Lots. Every guy in this band is at least an amateur musicologist. We're all adamant about pursuing all forms of music. There's a lot of people who have huge record collections and seek out obscure things. The main point of what we do is not about covers. In the beginning, we weren't good enough to do covers. I think that was a good thing. We'd listen to those songs and try to emulate that kind of style as best as we could. I'm sure that there's a lot of stuff that we've done that's really obscure, but after six weeks of touring I'm a little brain-dead at the moment. A song called "Cat Music" that was done by Dave Bartholomew, he was a New Orleans bandleader. He was one of those guys who played on a million records. His band backed up Fats Domino. He came in at the time before rock 'n' roll and before radio. He never had that national notoriety. He was more of a jukebox style. He was more of a Louis Jordan whose career was lost somehow by history because the records were on 78s. Those records, the good records got played to death and then broken because they were fragile and that's what records were for. 45s and 78s, if you find them in mint condition, are amazing things.
 
In our world, our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. Information is in a hurry now. Patience is not a virtue. Kids need something that speaks to them. My parents were more on the hippie take and the last thing that I could imagine doing in my teens is going to a Grateful Dead show, not that my parents were huge Dead fans, but it was the "parent thing". The one thing that I did find in this music, a lot of bands from the punk thing went the speed metal way, but what I found, that we've always tried to present, is that same sort of intensity. Historically, jazz was the original punk rock. It was not played in White Lillyland. It was played in brothels and speakeasies. It was party music. Somewhere it lost it's reputation. It became old fogies music and it's not. It's got balls.
 
The problem is not that things change and get harder, I'm all for that. If I was willing to research it enough, in any type of music, if someone would get to me, the problem is that a lot of times that's not what we get on the radio. We don't necessarily get the guy doing the quality work, we get the guy who has the long green behind him. I think that as long as people are adamant about some kind of music, that's enough for me. You know what I'm saying? I can respect that. Their musical taste doesn't have to be mine. As long as they go pursue music and support live music, then good for them. I think it's going to be a lost art one day very fast. Live music, I think. In the disco era, we didn't have the Internet. They don't even leave the houses to shop. I like collecting antiques and old records, but I don't want to do it over E-Bay. I want to have the adventure of finding that thing in the pile of junk.
 
K2K: What do you think about how a lot of punk crowds always are into jazz and swing too?
JA: In 1997, this was alternative music, in 1989 this was alternative music and we've gone to a place where it was mainstream music and now it's gone back to being alternative music. I think this is good music, so when you get into a place with 14 year old kids who have an open mind and you jump up there and do it well, they're going to like anything. If you catch kids young enough, they're hip. Kids are hip. They know the difference in quality. If you give them a choice, they will choose the good thing. I think that there are a lot of people getting too old for punk rock who still have the same passion about something and are needing the same intensity, not that they're too old for it but just ready for a change.
 
When I went through a whole time when I was listening to only this kind of music and I wasn't into punk rock and then going on the 1997 Warped Tour only reminded me of how much I loved punk rock and what it meant to me. Looking at those kids, remembering what I felt, made me nostalgic for it but also getting to tour with some of the newer bands made me hip to what they were doing and it really reopened my mind to all kinds of music again, so I actually went the other way. I went through this whole thing of, loved it and held it so dear to my heart and then went full cycle and went back to a place where I was. I just love good music.
 
K2K: Punkers all seem to like big band, swing and Pink Floyd for some reason.
JA: That's cool. They're hipsters. What can I say.
 
K2K: So, you've got these three genres of music and people all into the same thing.
JA: I think what you get is just subcultures. People who live outside the mainstream tend to like most things outside the mainstream. I'm happy to hear something that excites me on radio. That's occasionally. Mostly, if you're not somebody who listens to radio, then you're probably somebody who collects vinyl. I think the jazz and Pink Floyd thing is that Pink Floyd has a certain kind of complexity to it. For somebody who likes intricacies, they have a certain kind. Jazz has another kind. So it's kind of brain music, you know.
 
K2K: How did you guys come up with the Klezmer sound of "Mr. Meshuggha"?
JA: It's more based on the guy who did the music for all the Bugs Bunny cartoons.
 
K2K: It's such a throw-off from the rest of the CD.
JA: Yeah, well that's the kind of CDs that we want to make. The problem with this world and the problem with the way music is is that it used to be that bands could have 20 record careers because with every album, you were ready to be shocked. People were fans of music. They wanted something new. They didn't want the same record again. Now that it's all marketing, if you have a hit, two years go by and you're making a new record, they want you to make the same song over because it worked last time, but now it's a different climate. The problem is that bands are supposed to do the same s*** over and over and over again, and if that doesn't work... It does work, but it shouldn't. We don't want to repeat ourselves. We want to keep growing. We want our records to be new every time we do them.
 
K2K: Your music has a real 1950s film soundtrack type of style to it.
JA: Well, we're fans of that stuff too.
 
K2K: Would you ever want to do a film, like a retro style film? Classic black and white.
JA: We would LOVE to do a film. Any kind of film, we would do it. Any kind of musical challenge, that would be good. We like pulp fiction, hard boiled fiction, like Jim Thompson, the guys who wrote a lot of books that became those movies. It's no mistake, it's the stuff that influences our lives and we love Americana.
 
(Then, as James had to run off to soundcheck...)
K2K: Any last words?
JA: Yeah, have a good time - all the time.
 
And with that we parted ways until the show later that night where the spectacle of days long past were relived in the resurgence called Royal Crown Revue. If you're into people dancing and jumping, this was the show to see.
 
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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