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Interview: Straight No Chaser

A cappella group returns to Van Wezel Nov. 17


Holiday music has been a mainstay for Straight No Chaser throughout the group’s decade-and-a-half career. In fact, it was a viral video of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that became an unexpected big break for the group.

Originally formed in 1996 at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, the original members had gone their separate ways upon graduation, only to get the surprise of a lifetime after the video, which was posted online as part of a 10th-anniversary reunion of the a cappella group, caught on – and caught the attention of Atlantic Records.

Soon calls were going out to the various singers, and Straight No Chaser, with a record deal in hand, had regrouped for a totally unexpected second chapter.

Thinking Christmas music was the perfect introduction to the group, Craig Kallman, the chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, had the group debut with the 2008 Christmas album, “Holiday Spirits.” It was an immediate hit. Since then, the group has released three more full-length holiday albums, five full-length non-holiday albums, as well as two holiday and four non-Christmas EPs. The second of the holiday EPs is “Stocking Stuffer,” a new eight-song release that includes several original tunes and a cappella interpretations of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Feliz Navidad/We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

This year’s holiday tour will mark a return to familiar territory for the group, which has made these tours an annual tradition. But this past summer, Straight No Chaser switched things up for fans in a big way, releasing the yacht-rock-themed album “Yacht on the Rocks” and going on a tour on which the singers ditched their usual Rat Pack-styled suits for pastel-colored beach/boating attire.

But now the guys in Straight No Chaser are breaking out the familiar wardrobe again to celebrate the holiday season, while also mixing in some songs from across the group’s non-holiday albums.

“For the fall, we’re going to get back kind of what people expect in the fall, a lot of holiday music, some of those staples that people know and love us for and of course, new music as well,” said singer Seggie Isho in a recent phone interview. “We want to make sure we’re continuing to move the catalog forward, you know, so we’re not getting stale and singing the same songs. We have the lovely benefit of every song ever written is at our disposal. So it’s pretty easy to put together some new stuff.”

The idea to take a deep dive into yacht rock -- an emerging genre in which a number of music acts are performing soft rock hits from the late 1970s and early 1980s or original songs in that vein that fit the vibe of relaxing on the water or the beach – stemmed from Straight No Chaser’s management team.

The group generally does a spring/summer tour and then an extensive fall/Christmas season tour, and some of the shows each year visit cities that are close to each other. The concern was fan fatigue might set in and people wouldn’t feel the need to see the group each time they played in their markets.

“Our tour manager was like ‘Listen, you can’t expect those people to spend their hard-earned money to come and see you guys if they think they’re going to hear somewhat of the same show they just saw in December or in the spring.’” Isho said. “‘Let’s give them something different. Let’s give them a reason (to come out). Let’s make this a destination show, switch it up, make it a different vibe, make it into different sounds, give them a reason to want to see both shows.’”

The nine singers – Isho, Steve Morgan, Randy Stine, Walter Chase, Tyler Trepp, Jerome Collins, Michael Luginbill, Jasper Smith and Freedom Young – frequently listened to yacht rock backstage and Collins eventually suggested doing a yacht rock album.

Isho feels the yacht rock music is a natural fit for Straight No Chaser, who have released nine full-length studio albums – some devoted to Christmas songs, some to non-holiday material.

“It’s not just a tribute to the genre and those artists. It’s a tribute to vocal harmony,” he said. “I mean, you listen to some of those songs, even before we put our little spin on it, and it’s just rich, beautiful harmonies that blend so well and it’s effortless and it’s easy.”

In making the “Yacht on the Rocks” album, Straight No Chaser developed a cappella arrangements for songs by some acts that are considered pillars of the style – including Toto, Kenny Loggins, the Michael McDonald edition of the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Rupert Holmes. The group teamed up with a producer who was uniquely qualified to help the group authentically convey the yacht rock experience -- Nicholas Niespodziani, singer/guitarist/band leader of the Yacht Rock Revue, the group that has spearheaded the rise of the genre.

Isho had high praise for how Niespodziani worked with the nine vocalists.

“Nick was really intent on getting us to really understand the (yacht rock) vibe,” Isho said. “And it got as intricate as how to attack a note, how to come off of a note, what type of vibrato to use. Nick was really, really involved in the details. I think when you listen to the album and compare it to other stuff we’ve done, it’s going to feel a little bit different. I don’t know how much your average listener will be able to tell, but for us who are so close to it, it’s super obvious to us.”

Straight No Chaser’s vocal blend has arguably never sounded better than on “Yacht on the Rocks,” but another strong point is the inventive arrangements of certain songs.

A prime example is the Doobie Brothers’ hit “What A Fool Believes,” on which Straight No Chaser slows the tempo, and puts an effectively jazzy and soulful spin on the opening half of the song that’s different enough to be unrecognizable before flowing into the song’s familiar melody. Other tunes, such as Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After The Love Has Gone,” hue closer to the familiar versions, but translate well to the a cappella form.

In addition to performing songs from the group’s growing catalog of holiday songs, Isho said there’s a chance Straight No Chaser may do a few selections from “Yacht on the Rocks” on this fall’s holiday tour, just to give fans a taste of that material.

“We’re kind of having that debate internally because we’re thinking about keeping these kind of experiences different,” he said. “But then on the flipside, the majority of the country that we’re traveling to in the fall will not have had a chance to see the Yacht Rock tour. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword. We’ll see.”

Tickets for the group's Nov. 17 performance at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall are available here.


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