On the Beat

There's more to ska than the last 15 years let on. Try to argue that point with Suspects guitarist Bill Grady, and he'll be happy to walk you through the genre's last three decades. Go a step further -- equating ska's spirited past with, say, the pop silliness of Madness' 1983 hit "Our House" -- and you can expect a chastising along with your history lesson.

The Suspects are, hands down, the most capable and experienced of a small pack of ska bands that have surfaced in Houston during the last two years. The eight-piece outfit proved its mettle a few weeks ago at South by Southwest, tearing up the drab atmosphere of a heavy metal club on the outskirts of downtown Austin with a sharp set made up largely of material from the band's 1995 CD, Ninety-Nine Paid. That release's mostly upbeat collection of tunes pays obligatory tribute to tradition while keeping the sound relevant, funny and immediate -- no small accomplishment, when you consider that bending ska's stylistic strictures has never failed to alienate at least a few loyalists.

The ska bible from which the Suspects preach so passionately was around years before the gentrified version popularized in the late '70s and early '80s by Madness and others. Two decades earlier, ska's first wave had already consumed the popular music culture of Kingston, Jamaica, thanks to an omnipresent group of jazz-trained session musicians named the Skatalites, whose leader, Don Drummond, is credited by many with being the genre's founding father. This initial movement's bouncy rhythms (a fusion of the American rhythm-and-blues backbeat and the uniquely Jamaican hesitation beat), soulful keyboards and tight, horn-driven arrangements predated reggae's rise in the early 1970s and provided much of its backbone.

Bridging the gap between early ska and reggae was "rock steady," which in the late '60s relaxed the tempos and incorporated a more gospel-inspired singing style into the mix. It was Bill Grady's love of rock steady that motivated him to form the Suspects.

"Anything from '69 to '73 -- that's where I was at," says Grady. "And that's the way I wanted the Suspects to go. In the early days, I was really an asshole about how I thought the band should sound."

That meant, essentially, that Grady had no desire to emulate the bands that led ska's second wave, which took root in the mid-1970s as Jamaican laborers made their way to England. Soon, the original island variety got caught up in Britain's working-class punk aesthetic, and an interracial ska movement took hold, led by Britain's Two-Tone label, which released early material from the likes of the English Beat, Selecter and the Specials. Of that group, the English Beat had the most significant success in America, but only after the band watered down its ska influences with a more conventional Brit-pop sound on the minor U.S. hit "Save It for Later."

Suspects founders Bill Grady and keyboardist Joe Cote are an odd match, Grady with his thick-framed Buddy Holly spectacles and greased-back hair and Cote with his boy-next-door looks and tragically unhip apparel. On the final day of South by Southwest, the band's unofficial spokesmen have agreed to a sit-down discussion while the rest of the band sleeps off the previous night's showcase and a weekend of watching, as Grady puts it, "marginal bands." The pair's musical tastes run the gamut (Grady listens to death metal on his headphones while at work for Houston-based music distributor Southwest Wholesale; Cote has a soft spot for acid jazz, Sly Stone and early Genesis), and it's rare for either to agree on much -- other than, that is, their mutual passion for ska.

Cote says his introduction to ska came two years ago at the insistence of Grady, who, before forming the Suspects, was with the Huntsville reggae/ska outfit X's for Eyes.

"The only people really into ska when they joined [the Suspects] were myself, Charlie [Esparza] the bass player, Andy [Hocker], our original saxophone player, and Chris [Kendrick], our first singer. Everyone elsCR>e was kind of a ska novice," says Grady. "And for those of us who were into ska, we were into punk first."

The Suspects' bulky roster (not unusual for ska groups) also includes guitarist Alan Hernandez, drummer Claudio Depujadas, saxophonist Chuy Terrazas and trombone player Hunter Close. In the past, Kendrick's "rude boy" stage presence -- an attitude and look born in the ghettos of Jamaica and London that entails wraparound sunglasses, narrow-brimmed porkpie hats, a close-shaven hair style and tapered suits -- added a dimension of authenticity to the Suspects' live show. But he left a short while back, frustrated that the band wasn't pursuing his more roots-oriented agenda, Grady says. Kendrick has been replaced by Thomas Escalante, whose superior singing just about makes up for the assertive personality he lacks as a frontman. Sax player Hocker also departed after making Ninety-Nine Paid, but hasn't, as yet, been replaced.

Chronologically speaking, it would be easiest to lump the Suspects into ska's supposed third (and latest) wave, which has produced two competing offshoots: those who prefer their ska laced with punk's hard-core elements -- evident in the "ska-core" aggression of Boston's Mighty Mighty Bosstones and California's Rancid -- and those, such as New York's Slackers, who'd like to keep the idiom as tradition-based as possible. Where the Suspects fall in the vast middle ground of '90s ska is open to debate.

"We write songs from the ground up," says Cote. "So who knows what they're going to turn out like? Sometimes it's faster; sometimes it's a little more traditional."

Song by song, Ninety-Nine Paid samples a relatively broad spectrum -- from the slow, simmering beats ("Freedom," "A Minor Hell") and R&B-flavored melodies ("The Dance," "Lies Are Free") of older ska and rock steady to more jacked-up tempos indicative of the Two-Tone movement ("Caffeine," "Another Day Another Dollar," "Sizzle"). And keeping with ska's easygoing, mildly political stance, the Suspects' lyrics servCR>e the dual purpose of escape and protest.

"I think ska is very humble -- it's true and it's humble," says Grady. "I don't think we've ever written a lyric that's embarrassing. No one wants to hear guys with guitars tell them what to do, especially me."

Purists at heart, Grady and Cote say they'd rather not taint the Suspects' sound with contemporary hard-core ingredients, preferring, instead, to let the band stand on its own, apart from any particular image, be it rude boy, skinhead or whatever. After all, shouldn't it be the music that dictates the trends rather than the other way around?

"We have a punk attitude," says Grady. "But we don't put the punk in the music, I don't think."

"Especially me," adds Cote. "I'm the anti-punk."

Ninety-Nine Paid's spoken intro, "Thanks Johnny" (taken from an episode of the irreverent '80s sitcom Police Squad), conveys the popular misconception about ska -- that it's a derivative of reggae -- as well as an unavoidable truth: in its purest form, ska is too exotic for mainstream tastes. Not that this has any bearing on the large, mostly teenage audiences at the average Suspects performance. In the eyes of the kids, apparently, ska's ties to punk lend the Suspects legitimacy. The popularity of the band with the younger crowd is apparent at clubs such as Fitzgerald's and the Abyss -- often to the tune of 400 to 500 revelers per show. Many of these fans practice a dance ritual called "skanking," swinging their arms and bouncing from one leg to the other with syncopated vigor.

"Kids who come to see the Suspects are really dedicated to ska," says Fitzgerald's manager Robbie Cool. "They're one of the few bands where just about everyone actually comes to hear the music."

Younger bands such as John Q Public and Mod Squad are feeding off the Suspects' success and contributing to a small ska craze around town. "Ska is really easy to latch onto," says Marc Reed, who books music at Fitzgerald's. "You don't have to have heard the song before tCR>o immediately hear something you like."

Grady says that what's happening here is similar to the full-blown movement that just recently seeped up out of New York City's underground, thanks to significant help from the Toasters, an act that has developed an impressive international support base over the last decade or so. Though local enthusiasm may have died down somewhat since about six months ago, says Grady, Houston's status as "ska central" in Texas remains solid.

"There's no question: crowds are the best here," says Grady, who should know, given that the Suspects perform all over the state. "Right now, there are seven ska bands in town. We're the old guys. The other bands are very young."

Grady is aware, though, that when it comes to Houston's fickle music scene, gambling on anything isn't wise. But if you wanted to bet that ska would take solid root in any city in Texas, he says, "It would be here."

The Suspects perform Saturday, March 30, at Deep Phat, 302 Tuam. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6. The Impossibles open. For info, call 523-3786.

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Hobart Rowland