by Daniel Coston and Carl Fulmer.
After years of being relegated to the memories of our parents and grandparents, the "swing" music of the 1930s and '40s has recently begun to catch fire again with a whole new generation. Among the leaders of that rebirth have been the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, whose song "Zoot Suit Riot" has been all over the radio airwaves in the past three months.
Despite their ode to the suits worn by the likes of Cab Calloway, the eight-member group is anything but a retro band. Formed in Eugene, Oregon in 1989, the eight-member band has spent years building a loyal following with a head-spinning mix of swing, ska, soul rock, topped off by their enigmatic lead singer and songwriter, Stephen Perry.
After years of constant touring and releasing their own self-produced records, the band worked out a record deal last fall with the Los Angeles-based label Mojo Records. Against the band's initial wishes, Mojo released "Zoot Suit Riot" to modern rock stations, which spawned a flood of sales for their CD, "The Swingin' Hits Of...," and garnered the band heavy airplay on MTV.
If the band's summer plans are any indication of the future, the Daddies won't be going away anytime soon. Along with recording their next record, the band has recorded "Fly Me To The Moon" for an upcoming Frank Sinatra tribute album, as well as the Harry Belafonte classic "Jump In Line" for the upcoming Zucker brothers comedy, Baseketball. The band will also be a part of both the Warped and HORDE tours, and recently turned down an offer to do "The Love Boat" theme song for the resurrected TV show.
Sitting down with us before the Daddies' red-hot show at Tremont last March , Perry talked about the band's recent success, planning for the next record, and a little bit of history on the song "Zoot Suit Riot."
Tangents: How did your deal with Mojo Records happen?
Perry: We met the head of the label last fall while we were on tour, and we said, "Look, we've been doing this for years. We don't need tour support. We always make our own records on a budget. The problem is that we can't get our records in certain stores." We'd call ahead and say, "Hey, we're coming to your town. Can we put in the store some of our records?" And they'd say, "Sorry, we've never heard of you." So we had pretty much done as much as we could do on that level. We were hitting a glass ceiling, and we were getting tired, and it was frustrating to not get our CDs in stores. So we told the guy that, and he said, "I want to sign a deal with you, but I don't have much cash." We said, Hey, we don't need cash. We've got a record done. [The Swingin' Hits Of..., 1997.] We'll give you the damn record. It's no loss to you, just get us into stores. And we'll tour like crazy for it, like we always do." So we put it out on a national level, and it started to sell. Our whole idea was, "Let's keep it small-time. We don't want to go to radio. Maybe college radio, so that people would know that we were coming to their town." Since the record was doing so well, [Mojo] decided at some point to take it to modern rock radio. And we were like, "I don't know. I think it's a waste of money." We tried to talk them out of it. So we compromised. We said, "Put it out on some stations, just to put a toe in the water." And every one of the stations where they tried it immediately added it.
T: You once told us that you were hated in your hometown for your name.
P: Yeah. At the time that we started was right at the apogee of that political correctness. It was part of curriculum at colleges, at that point. The idea was that language controls thought. If you said something like "Cherry Poppin' Daddies," you were actually contributing to all sorts of goddamn things.
T: What do you think is going to happen with this resurgence in swing?
P: I think that there will be a tiny swing blip on the screen. But it's good that it's opened up music a lot. The problem with swing music, I think, is that there's only a few bands doing it, and there's a lot of nostalgia shit involved. You have to do something new with it. We inoculate ourselves against the Swingwasi kind of people, and we'll play a ska song, and what not. The third-wave ska fans have followed us throughout our careers. They've not worried about whether we were a ska band or a swing bad. But when the swing scene started happening, they were way more elitist. It is 1998. To do something totally retro really isn't that interesting. We're essentially a pop-rock band with swing influences. And ska influences, and soul influences, and stuff like that.
T: What's your next record going to be like?
P: It's going to be swing, but there's a lot of weird songs. We just recorded 15 songs, and we're going to do two more recording sessions, so we'll have about 45 songs, total. It's [hard to] pare it down to 12, but the question is what songs do I like the most. A lot of the stuff I've written is weird pop. We're trying to branch it out some, so we don't have to make "Zoot Suit Riot II." We've already done that.
T: What's the writing process like for you and the band?
P: It's just totally random. I just write whatever's in my head, and I try not to make myself go, "Oh, that's not a Daddies song." That's the big danger. The big trick is to not make yourself a marketing tool.
T: After nine years of doing this, is it strange to be considered by some as a "new" band?
P: Yeah. The trip behind the record was so different to begin with, because the expectations were so low. Now I'm told that it's gonna go gold, easy. We made that record at our home studio. In fact, on "Zoot Suit Riot," after I did the vocals, I said to the engineer, "Okay, I think I'm ready to sing it now." And [the engineer] said, "Hey, Steve, you should come here and listen to it. It didn't sound bad." So I went in, and he said, "I think that you should keep that in there," cause we know that it was the first take. We were recording it for our fans, and our label, so we left it in. And now, it's being played on Top 40 stations. [laughs]