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By Amanda Savage
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Let the drums roll out,
let the trumpet call
while the people shout
--strike up the band.
Gershwin probably had no idea that, 65 years later, the drums would still be rolling, the trumpets calling and the people--from KISS fans to stage-diving skaters--still shouting.
Manning the vanguard of the neo-swing movement is Royal Crown Revue, a cool, classy seven-piece that reconstructs the Cotton Club era into gangster whitewalls of sound, incorporating big-band jazz, R&B and bebop with a punk aesthetic. The outfit's members share an appreciation for pulp-crime novels and dress like they cleaned out Al Capone's vault before Geraldo Rivera got there--fedoras, double-breasted pinstripe suits and two-tone leather shoes.
RCR has been crowned king of "cocktail nation," and the band's timing may seem suspiciously impeccable to fans arriving fashionably late. But Royal Crown Revue didn't follow a pop-culture trend--pop culture caught up with Royal Crown Revue.
The year was 1989. The city, Los Angeles. Rockabilly guitarist Eddie Nichols, originally from Manhattan, switched to vocals and started teaching six-string novice James Achor (Ohio) how to really play. The third man, Mando Dorame, was a tenor-sax player from Watts. Influenced by rockabilly, soul and the Sex Pistols, the trio started jamming and hooked up with three siblings from the early '80s punk trio Youth Brigade. This early version of RCR recorded the group's debut, Kings of Gangster Bop, released in 1991, just before trumpet player Scott Steen came down from Frisco.
Movie director Charles Russell heard the disc, caught a live set and hired the Revue to perform "Hey, Pachuco!" for Jim Carrey's animated dance sequence in The Mask. Bill Ungerman, a baritone saxist and arranger from Oklahoma, joined up shortly thereafter.
The group was in turmoil at that point--the three brothers' moonlighting between RCR and Youth Brigade were slowing things down, and the rest of the band eventually fitted them with cement shoes. Minneapolis bass player Veikko Lepisto and Hawaiian drummer Daniel Glass got the open spots.
With a big movie break, and the considerable chops of Lepisto and Glass, Royal Crown Revue was a hot ticket. Warner Bros. won the bidding war, and issued last year's Mugzy's Move. RCR's breakthrough album includes a spruced-up version of "Hey, Pachuco!" and 11 other swing, jazz and back-alley bebop cuts with titles like "Datin' With No Dough" and "Zip Gun Bop." RCR is also Darin enough to cover Bobby's classic "Beyond the Sea," an orchestrated cut that's smoother than a peeled egg.
Royal Crown premieres its upcoming national tour in Tempe, marking its 10th appearance in the Valley. Trumpet player Scott Steen took time out to discuss pachuco history, vintage suits and, of course, Las Vegas.
New Times: Didn't you play a heavy-metal festival in Phoenix once?
Scott Steen: That was the first time we came through there. A Heavy-Metal Sunfest or something like that. The crowd dug it, though. Hell, man, we opened for KISS two nights in Omaha. On our last tour, we joked with some of KISS' people backstage in Denver about opening a show. About two weeks later, I get a call and they're saying they have us penciled in for Omaha. So we said, hell, yeah! I mean, what more of a story than to open for KISS! It was scary, 'cause there were 13,000 people out there waiting to see KISS. Actually, our drummer's solo helped turn the audience around. By the end of the set, people were throwing devil signs and rocking out!
NT: Yeah, that drummer you've got [Daniel Glass] is phenomenal.
SS: We got him three years ago and that's when everything went to the next level. We could play songs that we always wanted to do. "Mondello" and "Trouble in Tinseltown" were two we could never get quite right. The funny thing is that Daniel was really new to the whole swing thing. He had to start listening to a lot of tapes like Louis Prima and Cab Calloway just to get a good understanding and feel for it.
NT: Well, he picked it up quick. That solo in the "Pachuco" reprise could have Neil Peart taking notes.
SS: Well, guess what--they take lessons from the same teacher.
NT: Speaking of "Hey, Pachuco!," there were a lot of Phoenix zoot suiters back in that day. What do you know about the roots of that culture and swing?
SS: Basically, pachuco kids listened to swing and they wanted to dress up and look nice 'cause they didn't have a lot of money. Not just Hispanics, but predominantly. During that time, securing clothes and fabric for the sailors was part of the war effort. They cut back on copper and stuff, but pachuco kids would go out dressed to the nines in these big extra fabric suits, and sailors would pick fights with them. The kids began to form cliques to protect themselves, and that's how a lot of gangs started. A switchblade was almost an accessory for any zoot suit. Pachuco was somewhat equivalent to "homeboy" or other gang-related slang, although a gang back then wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
NT: Which explains the lyrics: "Summer '43, the man's gunnin' for me/Blue and white mean war tonight."
SS: Right. The sailors wore blue and white.
NT: So where do you guys score the vintage clothes?
SS: Every time we're in some Midwestern town, we see these huge 5,000-square-foot antique malls and everybody yells, "Antique Mall!!" Needless to say, we've been late for a few sound checks! We used to do real well at the thrift shops but nowadays a good vintage suit might cost about $250. We still gotta have 'em, though!
NT: Royal Crown's look and vibe seem perfect for videos, but you're not on MTV. Have you even shot a video for the new album?
SS: Actually, no. We aren't played on the radio, except for a jazz station here or there, and you can't be on MTV if you aren't getting airplay. The record labels today are concentrating on bands that fit into specific categories. Even though we appeal to alternative or new-music fans, the industry doesn't know quite where to place us. They claim they are looking for something fresh, but they can't see that it is standing right in front of them. So instead they rehash the same formulas like funky Red Hots or cute female "folk" singers.
NT: Word is, Lollapalooza is trying to book you for this summer. Any truth to that?
SS: Nah, we're doing the [skate jam festival] WARP tour as one of the main headliners.
NT: Skaters dig you guys?
SS: Yeah! It's most evident when we go to Tahoe. You get the craziest snowboarders up there, and when we go up, the place is like sick--it's so packed! People are just falling off the stage, it's so full.
NT: You and a couple of bandmates did some stuff for the Swingers soundtrack, right?
SS: Yeah, Mando, James, Daniel and I were in the Jazz Jury, and there are three instrumental pieces on the CD.
NT: What did you think of the movie?
SS: I thought it was great! It was kind of bittersweet, though, 'cause Royal Crown Revue was actually supposed to do the film, but then the cost of licensing masters from our record label was too high for the film's ultralow budget. It's unfortunate, too. It would have been nice to have been a part of it. But then again, we don't want to be only known as a band that's derived from movies.
NT: Some of the spoken-word dialogue in your songs sounds like it's inspired by old gangster flicks.
SS: Well, Eddie [Nichols] is Mr. Film Noir, kind of a detective-novel, pulp-fiction guy. James has a great collection of pulp novels also. But books are better than movies to make your imagination run wild. I liked the films with James Cagney, though. He had the attitude--a lot of piss and vinegar.
NT: Royal Crown must be a hit in Vegas.
SS: Oh, yeah. We played two weeks at the Hilton when I first joined the band. I played blackjack the second to last night we were there, and at first I lost $600, then went back to the table with $100 and walked away six hours later up $3,000. I had $3,600 and was able to get an apartment in L.A. and buy a car and a new trumpet. Since then, though, Vegas has slowly been getting that money back.
Royal Crown Revue is scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 1, at Gibson's in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).