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DM) What's the story behind the band?
JN) The band's story goes like this... Seven (going on eight) years ago, several high school buddies decided to get a band together. What kind of band? Well, they all liked music you could dance to. They all wanted room to stretch out without any jam-band pretensions. They wanted to play exciting music. They wanted to play music that could somehow reference the incredible variety of music they liked.Out of that, Skavoovie was born. Eight of the ten original high school buddies are still in the band (I'm one of 'em).
DM) What is your favorite piece of your own work?
JN) Personally, some of my favorite Skavoovie moments have never been captured for posterity: certain shows, certain solos that someone took, certain live moments. For me, live music is where it happens. As a group, we're all very proud of our last two albums, "Ripe" (Moon Ska NYC) and "The Growler" (Shanachie Records). "The Growler," especially, we put an incredible amount of time into. We're all truly happy with it.
DM) Who would you consider as your influences?
JN) Okay, sorry about this, but I'm going to have to give you kind of a long-winded approach to this:
Whenever I'm asked this question, I inevitably think of the main thing that (in my opinion) has kept Skavoovie together and excited about playing music with one another for almost a decade: the incredible diversity of tastes that we all bring to the band and enjoy sharing with each other. We all have pretty open minds about music, and we are constantly turning each other on to new things. Personally, I'm mainly into jazz, free-improv, and some rather out-there stuff. If I had never been in this band, I probably would be some pretentious beret-toting snob off in my own little world.
But through other members of the group, I've been turned onto, and developed a real passion for, a huge variety of sounds, everything from The Beach Boys to OutKast to Stockhausen to Supergrass to King Tubby to Big Black to Leadbelly to Japanese folk music to Mahler to Squarepusher to the Clash to Fela Kuti. We were all living together last year; and our house held literally thousands upon thousands of records, tapes, and CDs that we were always playing for each other. So, I guess the conclusion is that a big part of Skavoovie is always finding new music to get excited about.
DM) Where do you see your career going from here?
JN) Who knows? I love playing and writing, and I play in several other groups (which I'll be happy to tell you about if you're curious). In terms of Skavoovie, we've been through too much together to ever break up. Right now, some of us are back at school, and after a year of almost 200 shows, we're taking it easy. We've kind of sucked our market dry, but we're still playing and writing.
DM) When did you first start developing a strong passion for music?
JN) On a positive note, I can safely say that I can truly enjoy most music. The first real revelatory experience I had came when listening to an album by sax player Cannonball Adderly (Live at the Village Vanguard). I was in eighth or ninth grade, and for the first time, the music really hit me; I really felt it in my guts.
DM) Who are some of your favorite groups?
JN) My favorite groups tend to be ones that defy specific genre categorization or (the flip side of the same phenomenon) epitomize a particular category.
DM) What do you mean by this?
JN) Well, I noticed an interview with Rick Danko of The Band on TheCelebrityCafe. For me, The Band is a great example of this type of group; they both defy categorization and define it at the same time. Their songwriting and musicianship transcend their particular era.
Such great sounds! Such cool ideas! Such amazing song structures! It sounds silly to classify The Band as "classic rock" or "folk rock" or "singer/songwriter" music. They're so much more than any simple convenient category. At the same time, they had a coherent sound and virtually defined their own genre of music. The Band simply sounds like The Band. Obviously, they had influences and did not emerge out of a void, but the end result is unique and fantastic.
Another classic example of this is Duke Ellington. Has anyone, in the 100 years since Duke's birth, created anything that sounds even remotely like Ellington's music? No. To call it "jazz" is to sell it short (to call it "swing" and lump it in with Glenn Miller, is to REALLY sell it short), yet that's the best we can do. All you can really say is that Duke created his own sound, and in doing so epitomized the best that "jazz" has to offer, while at the same time transcending the category.
I think there are actually plenty of artists, both famous and not, who create music with this kind of personal intensity and spirit. Basically, I like music that burns, that leaves a mark, that has this intensity and spirit. It can be relaxing, or exciting, or loud, or quiet, or fast, or slow, and so on;.that doesn't matter. For me, good music always carries a personal, intense quality that transcends the specifics.
DM) Does playing with other groups impede your playing with Skavoovie? Have any of them had more success than Skavoovie?
JN) No way. Sometimes scheduling conflicts occur, but those are easily resolved. More important, playing with other people and learning new things keeps my own playing fresh and keeps me excited about music. One thing I've learned from touring and interacting with other musicians: the greatest danger of a musical lifestyle is getting stuck in a rut. I have never met anyone more depressed than the musician who feels he/she must keep chugging along doing what he/she's doing and been doing for a long time. It's really sad. On the other hand, I've met 60- and 70-year-old guys who still get excited about going on stage.
DM) Why do you think that is?
JN) Because their music is fresh and exciting for them. So, playing lots of different stuff keeps me excited about playing, and it allows me to bring different things into different contexts. Also, Skavoovie's fun because we all compose for the band. However, it is nice to have groups that I get to do all the writing for, groups that I can call my own. Other groups are simply other outlets for different things. Everyone in the band has other groups and things, ranging from punk rock to drum'n'bass to the New York Youth Philharmonic.
It also depends on how you define "more successful." Skavoovie has been on 14 tours (13 U.S. and one European); those tours were all unbelievable experiences, and very few bands have the luxury of being able to tour that much. We started when we were very young, so we didn't have to worry about regular jobs, families, that sort of thing that prevents 30- and 40-year-old musicians from touring. In that respect (touring our asses off), Skavoovie has been successful way beyond our initial expectations.
One band, The Push Kings, for whom I did some studio work, is a platinum-selling band in Japan. But I didn't really contribute anything to that album; I just played my parts. I did a tour with another Ska band, The Stubborn All-Stars. They're kind of well known, but the real treat of that tour was getting to play with some mind-bogglingly good musicians, such as Ska bass-master Vic Rice. In the same vein, I occasionally play with a jazz band in Boston, The Either/Orchestra, which has a certain degree of notoriety (largely because of alumni Medeski, Martin, and Wood). But again, I'm not getting rich playing with these groups. It's just a phenomenal educational experience.
DM) And I understand that you study at Harvard, right?
JN) My major is Cultural Studies and Music. The "Cultural Studies" part is kind of like cultural anthropology, with an emphasis on philosophy and analytic criticism; I lean towards philosophy of language material. The "Music" part of my schooling is pretty self-explanatory: theory and composition classes. Unbelievably, there are no performance-oriented classes here, so I'm kind of on my own to study and practice my horn.
DM) So is your goal to use your major or to follow through with Skavoovie?
JN) It depends on what you mean by "use my major." If you mean use my Harvard degree to get some consulting job, or a job at a "hot new e-business" (I can't tell you how many times I've heard my friends say that this past year), no, I don't think I'll be doing that. If you mean going to grad school and entering "academia," no, I probably won't be doing that either. But I certainly plan to do some writing after I get out of school. For the past year, I've done some work at a magazine here, and my major involves analytic thought/writing. I certainly plan on using that. Of course, the music I've studied here has had a huge effect on my playing and composition. In a major like mine, one gets exposed to a lot of new things, which in my experience can only help the creative process. So I guess a short answer to your question is as follows: Do I plan to go into a career that would involve focusing on one small part of my studies at the expense of everything else? No. Do I plan to use the skills I've (hopefully) learned to help my creative juices flow, and work on things that interest me? Yes. So, I'll always be writing and playing music.
In terms of the Skavoovie part of the question: As long as we're alive, there will be Skavoovie. Maybe it won't be the absolutely number one thing we focus on in our lives, though. For the past few years, it has been, but now we're all playing with other people and other groups and, in general, heading down different paths. But Skavoovie is still definitely around and playing a bunch. And we'll always continue to do that.
DM) But do you still consider the band a cohesive unit, even though you don't regularly perform together?
JN) This question is actually very timely. This is the first summer in seven years that Skavoovie hasn't toured, so I have been thinking a lot about this, trying to figure out what the band "is" right now. The short answer is, yes, I do consider that we are a cohesive unit.
We were extremely fortunate at a very young age; we got to do things (such as touring around the country in our van) that most 17-year-olds only dream about. Most bands will tell you that touring is a kind of "trial by fire." If you survive as a unit, the bonds are stronger than ever. After about 15 tours, we are a tight group, and I think we always will be, in a way. That said, it's nice to see people go off and do their own thing. It would be kind of sad to be doing the same thing year in and year out. We're all branching out in our own directions right now, and when we come back together, the music is better. It's not tired and old.