Spies Like Us

In the back room of a Galveston coffee bar, Will Frith hauls a hefty tome out of his backpack and rests it on his lap. The lead vocalist of the ska-fusion band Secret Agent 8 has been reading George Weinberg's The Pliant Animal, which lays one on the chin of psychoanalysis by suggesting that it compartmentalizes the human experience.

Heady stuff for a rock-star wannabe, perhaps. But dissing convenient categorization, whatever its form, seems to fit perfectly with the artsy attitude Frith had growing up in the sprawling blue-collar petrochemical town of Texas City, just north of Galveston's causeway. And you can bet a stack of Two-Tone 45s that it describes the unfettered, purists-be-damned approach that Secret Agent 8, one of the Houston area's best-kept musical secrets, brings to ska.

Since the Suspects recently played their last gig and Los Skarnales is not exactly traditional ska, the local ska torch has at least temporarily passed to Secret Agent 8, whether Frith likes it or not. "I don't know how I feel about that," says Frith, a University of Houston literature student who lists "conversation" as his favorite hobby. "Because we've never actually gone around claiming we were this real ska band, we never get nominated [in the Press] for best ska band or get much press anywhere because maybe we're so far removed, demographically and geographically."

Going against the grain was always something that came naturally to Frith, who was born in Arkansas and moved to Texas City at age four. His dad, a "redneck hillbilly" helicopter pilot who served in the Vietnam War, met Frith's Vietnamese mother on a blind date in Saigon. Frith's half-Asian background hasn't caused him any trouble with his peers, but his artistic sensibility has put him at odds with his dad. "I was pretty assimilated into American culture, so no one really noticed my ethnicity much," says Frith. "I played [street] basketball and stuff, but I was really interested in art, but my dad considered art to be gay, and he wasn't going to have some feminine son. I'm not really bitter, but let's just say now we've reached the point where we can agree to disagree."

While at Texas City High School, Frith chummed with rhythm guitarist Zack Cayton in art class, and eventually the two started listening to hard-edged, punk-infused ska by the likes of Operation Ivy and Rancid, even though Frith was and still is enamored by acts such as Radiohead and Björk. Cayton and Frith put together a band in early 1996 doing ska-punk covers, and released their first self-titled independent CD in 1998. Since the initial incarnation, some 20 members have come and gone, leaving Frith, Cayton (whose dad, Phil, manages the group), lead guitarist Kenny Dickman and trumpet player Aaron Koerner as the band's senior members.

While Frith concedes that sometimes it's difficult for a nine-man band to stay on the same page, he likes the vibe. "It's kind of a daily struggle, you know, the rockers versus the reggae guys, but it's not like it's negative," he says. "Still, we're all growing and changing at different rates, so that can be difficult at times, like with any relationship." Adds Cayton, "I can say that at least seven of nine would play music for the rest of their lives if given the chance. We've gotten a lot of support from our family members to get to this point, and often it's them who are saying, 'You know, you don't always get a chance like this. So don't screw it up.'"

On stage at a recent gig at Yaga's, Galveston's hedonistic playground for Houston's young and restless, Secret Agent 8 easily nails the elements of classic ska and reggae performed decades ago in the UK. The back line, consisting of keyboardist Ryan Scroggins, Clayton and drummer Justin Brouillard (the best drummer missing from this year's HP Music Awards ballot) is airtight in laying down the hyperdriven 4/4 ska beat. Woozy heads in the audience bob along in rapt approval, while a group of young women in town for a bachelorette party gleefully keep time by slapping each other's butts with novelty riding crops.

Yet for the majority of the show, when the band features its own take on instrumental ska, the sound combines jazz, funk, blues and hard rock, scooting beyond the porkpie-hat pigeonhole. The members of the three-piece horn section break into solos that seem more Miles Davis than Madness, and lead guitarist Dickman breaks free from the rhythm to sling it à la Di Meola or Stevie Ray. In the midst of the genre-bending commotion, Frith further builds his case that the band can play ska music, but only on its own terms. Between verses, his hands writhe in the air around a three-foot antenna attached to a small black box known as a theremin. His movement breaks the electrostatic barrier around the antenna, creating a high-pitched sound that changes pitch with a hand wave. (Remember the theme of the original Star Trek series and that recurring part that sounds like a banshee in heat? That's a theremin.)

The diversity evident in SA8's recent live shows is captured in the studio on the band's new album, Start.Action.Stop, to be released in October. At times the arrangements slide from big band to R&B, border on the cusp of noodling, then come back full circle to the familiar, chunky ska beat. Through it all, Frith's chameleon vocals mirror his myriad interests and short attention span. On "It's Not Too Late," he comes across like Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter, which works perfectly. "Just Unite," on the other hand, finds him affecting a cheesy, off-key Jamaican accent; it's the disc's only real blooper. When Frith narrows his focus and finds one or two signature vocal styles, he'll really come into his own.

"It's only more recently that we've really been accepted," Frith says, noting the band's inclusion on the Houston date on the Vans Warped Tour since 1998. "People used to come up to me and say, 'You know, so-and-so doesn't really fit in your band,' or 'Will, you should start a rock band.' But now what's cool is that a lot of people who say they don't like ska say they like our band. I mean, by saying this, I don't want to come across as some pretentious scenester, but we're trying to be as non-scene as possible."

But it's not like Frith and his bandmates maintain a totally laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the ska music debate. In fact, Frith is visibly irked when he gets to the subject of what SA8 is not. "There is this stigma associated with ska more recently. A lot of younger kids only got into ska when bands like Buck-O-Nine or the Bosstones came along," says Frith. Secret Agent 8 is more akin to the socially aware sounds of the Specials. After all, it wasn't for their showmanship alone that they were asked in 2000 to play the Houston Green Party's rally for Ralph Nader. "That [Bosstones] stuff was just campy and silly and really turns me off," Frith says. "It bothers me that some people think that's all there is to ska. Well, we're not a bunch of stupid, prepubescent teenagers, and we're not Blink-182. We've got something to say."

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr