You Want Ska With That?
Dave Schuttenberg is Arizona's bad boy of ska. He drinks, he smokes, he curses, he rides a scooter. He also leads Tucson's pretty-white-boy ska outfit Dave's Big Deluxe, the only known two-tone sextet ever to be named after a hamburger.
Schuttenberg is standing outside Nile Theater in Mesa flanked by five suit-and-tie-clad rude boys who look eerily like 1940s hit men. One of them, saxman Leland Danzer, is having a bad-hair day, having driven all the way from Tucson with the windows down.
"No, make that a bad-hair life," pitches Schuttenberg, a singer of burly proportions next to his bandmates.
"Fuck you, Dave." Danzer shifts on one foot and chuckles.
As the band passes time on the street before its set, Schuttenberg recounts two near-death experiences that transpired when the band recently hit the road in support of Sounds From the Credenza, its new Slimstyle Records CD. One incident involves smoke, skid marks and a driver "hopped up on Mini-Thins" on a Texas highway. The other takes place in a Mexican restaurant, where all six of the band members--Schuttenberg, Danzer, bassist Vernon Little, drummer Steve Condary, second saxman Justin Berry and trumpet player William "Slab" Bacon--got food poisoning, an event that would later be memorialized in the song "Power Grip."
The memory remains as sharp as Tabasco sauce to Schuttenberg. "We're on tour with Let's Go Bowling [a ska band from Fresno, California] and we all eat at a little Mexican restaurant near Corpus Christi called Casa de Roy. Seventeen out of 19 of us end up doing a lot of time in the bathroom. So Let's Go Bowling tells us about this thing they do on tour when they're eating crappy food all the time."
Schuttenberg hesitates, looks around at his entourage and decides to press on. "You're sitting there on the bowl and you're about to knock one out that's gonna blow you through the roof. You reach under the stall so you don't get blown away and you grab your buddy's hand. That's called 'power grip!'"
Despite brushes with the Grim Reaper and the vengeful Montezuma, the tour went off as planned. The band's investment of $900 covered party expenses, gas, the rental of an Astro minivan, one meal a day and several bags filled with potato chips shaped like the state of Texas. "Everything there is in the shape of Texas," comments Schuttenberg. "They're so fuckin' loyal!"
There was a time when Schuttenberg worried less about the shape of his potato chips and more about the shape of the world--which he saw as pretty sorry. Back in 1991, when he decided to start a ska band with fellow University of Arizona deejay Doug Benjamin, Schuttenberg had some heavy stuff to get off his chest. Early rehearsals, he says, were like therapy sessions.
"When Doug and I first wrote together, I was pretty angst-ridden," remembers the 25-year-old front man. "I had all this garbage in me, and our first songs were whiny, screamy, yelly, pissed-at-the-world stuff." Lately, things have lightened up in the lyrics department. "Now we play our music for God," says Schuttenberg, "and if we get chicks along the way, He understands."
Schuttenberg and Benjamin (who's no longer with the band) had spun enough ska at their college radio station to know what the rhythms should sound like and what instruments should be included in the lineup. Besides, Schuttenberg had dabbled in clarinet, sax and guitar as a kid, and had sung lead in a high school punk outfit, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Before long, six players were added to the fold and, within two years, a local label called Third World Underground released the band's first cassette.
Dave's Big Deluxe took its name from the Whopper/Big Mac of the Wendy's fast-food chain, and the band has a penchant for cheeseburger stage antics. At one gig, during a cover of Judas Priest's "Hell Bent for Leather," Schuttenberg roared through the audience on a motorbike, Rob Halford-style. The only difference was that he straddled a Vespa instead of a Harley.
"The beautiful thing about ska," says the singer, who claims to rev up an audience by tossing raw meat into the crowd, "is it's so much fun. I mean, you can only listen to Pearl Jam's 'Jeremy' so many times before you want to go out and kill yourself, too."
But Dave's Big Deluxe isn't entirely immune to heartache. The final track on Credenza, "Say Goodbye . . . (puss boy cry baby edit)," has Schuttenberg bawling uncontrollably over a woman's cheatin' heart. "Everybody in the band gets heartbroken and writes one song about how fucked up they get," he explains.
"Yeah, you gotta get a girlfriend first," counters Danzer.
"Fuck you, Lee." Schuttenberg giggles and turns his Elvis-size sideburns in the direction of the Nile's stage door, where members of Kongo Shock are filing out after their set. Five minutes later, the singer is up onstage, testing the microphone: "Check, check, syphilis, check, check, check . . ."
Cut to Willow House, a hippie-and-chess-player coffee shop in central Phoenix. Schuttenberg is smoking Camels at the table outside. Okay, typical behavior, but something's amiss here--the gregarious bandleader who screamed "Lick my taint!" onstage at Boston's a few weeks back looks like he just crawled out of corporate America. And he has. By day, Schuttenberg is a PC technician at Del Webb Corporation.
Day jobs make it possible for Dave's Big Deluxe, whose members range in age from 20 to 26, to buy imported beer on a regular basis and in copious quantities. And they let the band hire Big Apple producer Jim Waters (Sonic Youth, the Toasters) to put a sheen on DBD's hard, horn-heavy Jamaica-style ska. As it turned out, Credenza is a punchy, 11-song collection that explores, among other things, Schuttenberg's experiences growing up in a household where the in-your-face decor of the disco era reigned supreme.
"It's like a fond memory," he says with a sigh. "I grew up in a house with a plush, blue shag carpet and an orange downstairs and yellow walls and just the most heinous '70s crap you can imagine." The most vivid memory branded on Schuttenberg's cortex, along with those of his mother's beehive and his father's rust-colored poly-leisure suits, is the recollection of his parents' '50s-style Credenza stereo, which dutifully spun Schuttenberg's Judas Priest and Dead Kennedys records as he skateboarded around the house. The old phonograph comes to life in the upbeat cut "Credenza Style Hi-Fi."
A second CD and a seven-inch are expected in the fall, along with a gothic Credenza remix. "It'll be a cross between Planet Xymox and early Dead Can Dance," says Schuttenberg. As for another tour, Schuttenberg says he'd be content if the band never left Arizona again. "Besides," deadpans the singer, "once everybody gets laid solely 'cause they're in a band, that's when I quit."
Schuttenberg may be in for a long haul.
Dave's Big Deluxe is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, June 19, at Boston's in Tempe, with the Skatalites, and Kongo Shock. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).
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